Pet scams are alive and well and now come with a coronavirus twist

Stay-at-home restrictions aren’t slowing down pet scammers much. In fact, they’re helping.

And while pet adoptions during lockdown may not be up as much as some media reports suggest, the flood of news stories about empty shelters may be driving would-be pet adopters into the scammers’ clutches.

According to the Better Business Bureau (BBB), nearly 10,000 scam reports and complaints have come in during the past three years about “businesses” selling puppies and dogs. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) estimates that only about 10% of victims report these crimes, so this number could be much higher.

The BBB says these scams have spiked since COVID-19 took hold in the US, with more reports about fraudulent pet websites in April than in the first three months of the year combined.

Most are a variation on a scam that’s become all too familiar with the rise of the internet and social media: advertising a pet for sale online who doesn’t actually exist. But now the scammers are adding a cynical, COVID-19 twist.

Steve Baker, international investigations specialist for the BBB and the former director of the FTC’s Midwest region, explained the COVID-19 twist to NEWStat: “They’re claiming that [the pets] need a special vaccine shot. Of course there is no vaccine. Or they need a special [COVID-19-safe] shipping crate,” Baker says. “And because they always want to have the animal transported, [the pandemic gives them] additional reasons to claim there are problems at the airports.”

All of which the scammers want you to pay for. For an animal who doesn’t exist.

What can veterinary care professionals say to potential clients who ask about adopting a pet during the pandemic?

The number one rule, Baker says: See the pet in person.

“Never pay or adopt a pet without seeing it person,” Baker advises. “It’s harder to do now because a lot of animal shelters are shut down, or even empty, which, of course, the crooks know.

Baker says it’s hard to overstate the problem: “This is so widespread, it’s impossible to look for a pet online without running across one of these scams. They have totally saturated the internet.”

There are always scams out there, but the pandemic is making easy pickings of consumers. “You have more people working from home, and that opens them up to all sorts of scams,” Baker says. “Crooks are taking advantage of it. People are home with the kids, and they’re looking for some distractions. They’re thinking this might be a good time to bring in a puppy because they‘ve got the time to do it.”

Scammers know this, and they’re waiting to pounce.

NEWstat readers can help, says Baker, because veterinary professionals are “in a position to warn people about this stuff.”

Photo credit: © iStock/thomaguery