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How to Protect Yourself from Online Pet Scams

Cristina POPOV

May 27, 2024

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How to Protect Yourself from Online Pet Scams

For many, few things are more exciting than welcoming a pet into their home. The global pet care market is booming, with sales expected to top $269 billion by 2025. But as pet selling and adoption have moved online, so too have the schemes of unscrupulous scammers looking to profit by preying on the emotions of would-be pet owners.

Did you know?

  • As of 2024, 66% of U.S. households (86.9 million homes) own a pet.
  • A 2021 study found over 60% of prospective pet buyers encountered a scam listing, with puppies being the highest at 80%.
  • Yorkies, Daschunds, and French Bulldogs make up nearly 30% of all puppy scams, according to 2022 BBB Scam Tracker reports. However, consumers mentioned more than 40 breeds, meaning buyers should be cautious when shopping for any breed online.

The Better Business Bureau received nearly 10,000 reports of scams involving sellers claiming to have puppies and dogs for sale in the last three years alone. However, the Federal Trade Commission estimates that only 10% of victims actually report these crimes, so the real number of online pet scams could be much higher.

In most of the complaints - 60% of them - the person who got scammed never even received a pet after paying money. In other cases, live pets did get sent, but they had hidden health problems or other issues and didn't come with proper paperwork from the seller.

While big online marketplaces like Craigslist don't allow pet sales, scammers get around these rules by pretending they are just "rehoming" pets instead of selling them for profit.

What are online pet scams, and how do they work?

Pet scams occur when someone advertises a non-existent pet online and tricks buyers into paying money, but no pet ever arrives. The fraudster creates fake listings with compelling descriptions, cute photos, and attractive prices to hook unsuspecting victims. After getting an upfront payment, the scammer keeps demanding more money for made-up fees like transportation, medical care, and special crates. But the promised pet is imaginary and never gets delivered.

While these bogus pet ads often appear on general marketplaces like Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace, some scammers steal identities from legitimate breeders to pose as reputable sellers.

Related: Don't Get Scammed! Facebook Marketplace scams you should avoid

The Steps of a Typical Online Pet Scam

These con artists frequently steal photos from real pet owners, breeders, or stock image sites to make their listings look authentic. They spin believable cover stories about why the pet needs a new home, like a military deployment or allergies in the family. Using tales of illness, unplanned litter, or other hard-luck narratives, they pressure buyers to decide quickly before having second thoughts.

Step 1 - Advertising Free or Low-Cost Pets

Most scams start with a listing for free or inexpensive pets or puppies.

Step 2 - Discounted Offer

The scammer offers to rehome the pet for free but then asks for a discount shipping fee.

Step 3 - Escalating Fees

Once the victim agrees, the scammer claims additional money is needed for pricey crates, insurance, vet paperwork, etc. Some even create sham shipping business identities. Refusing these extra fees may bring threats of reporting the buyer for pet abandonment.

Most Common Pet Scams to Watch Out For

In addition to selling non-existent pets, scammers use other schemes to steal money from unsuspecting buyers. Beware of these common pet scam methods:

1. Fraudulent Pet Travel Documents

Some con artists illegally transport pets from lower-cost regions to higher-cost areas using counterfeit paperwork and microchips. Vaccine records may display expired batches or dates inconsistent with the animal's age. Verify microchip legitimacy through authorized databases and cross-check vaccination details with reputable veterinarians.

You can check if a microchip is legitimate on this website: www.dvc.services

2. Impersonating Pet Shippers

Scammers may create fake websites, emails, and branding that mimic legitimate airline pet shipping services. After receiving payment, they'll claim additional fees are required for missing paperwork, shots, improper kennels, mandatory pet insurance, etc. Be extremely cautious of any unsolicited communications from supposed airline pet services.

3. Posing as the International Pet and Animal Transportation Association

Fraudsters may replicate pet transportation association member websites and logos to gain credibility. If a website indicates they are a member of IPATA, look up their company name on their website.

Disregard any emails from purported group domains that seem illegitimate or unofficial.

4.      Holiday Puppy Scams

During the holidays, there is a surge in puppy scams as more families look to get a new puppy. Scammers take advantage of people's desire for a furry gift by making fake online offers for puppies that seem too good to be true. Do not send money or give out any financial information until you have met the seller in person and seen the pet. If you are unable to pick up the puppy locally, consider going through a reputable animal rescue group. They can verify that the seller is legitimate and follows proper breeding practices.

How to Spot Pet Scams

Several red flags can signal an online pet listing may be fraudulent. Be wary if the supposed seller only wants to communicate through certain messaging apps, cannot answer basic questions about the pet's background, refuses video calls or in-person meet-ups, and insists on payment through hard-to-trace peer-to-peer money transfer apps. Legitimate breeders have extensive knowledge of their animals, provide transparent medical records, share breeding histories, and facilitate proper pick-up or delivery arrangements.

Potential Scam Signs:

- No phone number provided. The seller avoids voice calls, preferring text/email communication only. This could indicate they are located outside the country.

- Stock or stolen photos. Use Scamio to check if the picture of your pet is real or taken from the Internet.

Scamio is our AI-powered tool dedicated to helping you identify and avoid potential scams. When unsure about a pet ad, copy/ paste the text or link, describe the situation, or upload the image or the QR code you want to verify. Scamio will analyze the data and tell you if anyone is trying to scam you.

Scamio is free and available on  WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, or a web browser. You can also help others stay safe by sharing Scamio with them in France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Romania, Australia and the UK.

- Sketchy payment. The seller demands money orders, gift cards, or peer-to-peer apps like Cash App, Zelle, and Venmo, where funds are difficult to recover if scammed.

- Pricing seems too low. Purebred pets offered at steeply discounted rates that don't align with typical pricing for that breed can signal a scam attempt.

- No verifiable credentials. If the seller claims registration or affiliations, independently confirm these claims with the stated organizations.  Reputable pet sellers prioritize transparency. They welcome inquiries, verify their operations, and follow security best practices for payments and pick-ups/deliveries to protect all parties. Any evasiveness or refusal to validate information should be considered a major red flag.

How to protect yourself from pet fraud

The safest approach is to pay money only after you have met the seller in person, seen the pet in its current home and reviewed all documentation and health records firsthand.

When considering an online pet purchase, thoroughly research the seller. Read reviews from previous buyers if available. On marketplace platforms, check the seller's feedback rating and history.

Other recommendations:

  • If you cannot visit in person, insist on viewing the pet and its parents/litter mates live via video call. Be wary if the seller refuses virtual meetings.
  • Do not make any payments, no matter how small, until verifying the pet exists as described and meets your expectations.
  • Use secure payment methods like credit cards or PayPal. Avoid cash transfers or informal peer-to-peer apps where funds are difficult to recover.
  • Ask detailed questions about the breed, breeding operation, and specific pet. Responsible breeders are knowledgeable and transparent.
  • Obtain documentation like health certifications, breeding records, and registration paperwork with verifiable logos/formats.
  • Be patient, and do not let yourself be rushed into purchasing before comfortably vetting the breeder and pet.

If you fall victim to a pet scam

If you suspect you are talking to a scammer, cut off all contact with them immediately and report them to the appropriate authorities.

Here's a list of who to contact:

  1. Better Business BureauBBB Scam Tracker to report fraud online.
  2. Federal Trade Commission (FTC)reportfraud.ftc.gov to file a complaint online or call 877-FTC-Help.
  3. Your credit card issuer – report the incident if you shared your credit card number, even if you did not complete the transaction. Monitor your statements, and if you suspect fraud, ask for a refund. It is not guaranteed, but many credit card companies will grant one.
  4. Petscams.com - petscams.com/report-pet-scam-websites tracks complaints, catalogs puppy scammers, and endeavors to get fraudulent pet sales websites taken down.
  5. IPATA – report the scam to the organization -  [email protected] as they collect and post known emails of pet scammers and websites.


How do I know if I'm talking to a pet scammer?

Major red flags include sellers who only communicate through text/email, recycling pet photos from other sites, requesting non-standard payment methods like gift cards, advertising prices well below typical market rates for that breed, and refusing video calls or in-person meetings. Legitimate breeders are transparent and can provide detailed documentation.

How do I get my money back if I've been scammed when trying to buy a pet online?

If you paid with a credit card, contact your card issuer immediately to dispute the charge and request a refund due to fraud, even if the transaction wasn't completed. Many card companies will issue refunds for scam cases. You should also file complaints with the Better Business Bureau, Federal Trade Commission, Petscams.com, and any relevant breeders' associations like IPATA. Reporting details helps authorities track down scammers.

How can I protect myself from falling victim to a pet scam?

Never send money or provide payment information until you have met the seller in person and seen the pet yourself. Insist on video calling if you cannot meet face-to-face. Use secure payment methods, not cash transfers or peer-to-peer apps. Thoroughly research the seller, read reviews, and verify any claims of credentials or affiliations. Be wary of sellers who refuse to answer basic questions or rush you into purchasing.



Cristina POPOV

Cristina is a freelance writer and a mother of two living in Denmark. Her 15 years experience in communication includes developing content for tv, online, mobile apps, and a chatbot.

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