By: Lily Velez
Puppy scams are nothing new in the world of internet fraudulence. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) has been tracking puppy scams for years, providing publicly accessible information on scams from as far back as 2015.
However, in the age of COVID-19, puppy scams have become a booming business in the United States. From April 2020 (shortly after many states instituted curfews and lockdowns) to September 2020, over 2,400 complaints were filed with the BBB in relation to a puppy scam. That’s an increase of over 280% from the same time period in 2019, when only 627 complaints were filed.
What has led to this unprecedented increase in criminal activity with something as innocuous as puppies at its core?
The new normal Americans are living in the wake of COVID-19 has unfortunately created a prime breeding ground for internet scams. Nationwide commitments to social distancing have allowed scammers the ability to deny interested parties the opportunity to meet their new puppy in person before handing over an adoption fee. This has led to thousands of Americans paying to adopt a puppy sight unseen–often to the tune of thousands of dollars.
Scammers have additionally conned their victims by demanding payment for climate-controlled crates for puppies needing to be shipped to their new home, fraudulent transportation services, and non-existent, corona-related vaccinations.
When it comes to the worst states to buy puppies online, here are the top 15 offenders based on the number of complaints filed with the BBB between April and September 2020:
Top 15 Offenders
Why Pet Adoptions Have Skyrocketed in 2020
According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), 6.5 million dogs and cats enter U.S. animal shelters every year.
However, the onset of a nationwide pandemic at the beginning of 2020 saw animal adoption rates soar higher than ever, with many rescues becoming overwhelmed with adoption applications and with breeders now maintaining waiting lists that extend well into 2021.
At the Jersey Shore Animal Shelter, adoptions have been up by 15%. The Motley Zoo Animal Rescue based in Redmond, Washington has also seen record numbers. Their monthly adoption rate has increased by 80% compared to what it was in 2019.
Breeders across the nation have also seen unprecedented demand for puppies, with numerous derivatives of the poodle breed being among the most popularly sought out pets this year. Silvertoon Doodles, based out of Silverton, Oregon, has seen weekly inquiries about available puppies increase by 200%. At the beginning of the pandemic, they adopted out an entire litter of puppies within 24 hours. In addition to this, they regularly receive referrals from other breeders who are unable to meet the growing demand for puppies.
Social distancing and quarantine this year have taken a toll on the mental health of Americans, with 53% of U.S. adults reporting that stress and worry over the COVID-19 pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental and emotional wellbeing.
Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) found that reports of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation were three to four times higher following the corona outbreak when compared with 2019. Over 13% of adults also reported starting or increasing substance abuse.
It’s no secret that the unconditional love a dog provides has a positive impact on a person’s health. Mounting scientific evidence shows the almost magical effect dogs have on us, from decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease and supporting healthy blood pressure to even lowering the risk of an early death by 24%.
But perhaps the greatest gifts a dog offers is simply its companionship, loyalty, and love.
It was this very companionship Vanessa R. from the San Francisco Bay Area sought to provide her elderly father when she began searching for a puppy back in October. Her father, 72-years-old, had recently lost his Japanese Chin dog but was finally ready to open his heart to a new four-legged companion.
Vanessa searched Japanese Chin rescues far and wide but was unable to find any available dogs. Eventually, she discovered the website Macus Chin, the maintainer of which promised Vanessa an 11-week-old puppy for $800. For an additional $180, the puppy would be shipped right to her front door.
The breeder, however, didn’t accept credit card payments. Instead, the owner of Macus Chin instructed Vanessa to send payment through the popular money app Zelle. Although her bank account initially flagged the transaction as potentially fraudulent, Vanessa had already spoken with Macus Chin several times by that point and believed the breeder to be trustworthy.
It was only when a follow-up email came soon afterward, requesting an additional $1,380 for shipping insurance, that Vanessa realized something was amiss. She contacted Macus Chin to express her confusion over this additional fee, which had never been brought up in their previous conversations, but the breeder stopped returning her phone calls and emails. She promptly filed a police report as well as complaints with the Federal Trade Commission and BBB. Unfortunately, since the transaction was conducted via Zelle and because Vanessa had authorized the payment, there was no means by which she could get her money back.
In retrospect, Vanessa admits that there were red flags along the way that she should’ve paid closer attention to. The breeder website, for instance, offered no information such as health records on the litter’s sire or dam. Nor were there multiple pictures available of the puppy she was interested in. In fact, she later found the picture of the exact puppy she’d wanted to adopt in a Facebook group dedicated to reporting puppy scams, where another woman had also been scammed by Macus Chin.
Stacy G. from Santa Rosa, California knows the emotional impact that goes with trying to move on from animal loss with the addition of a new puppy. She had lost a French Bulldog named Delilah back in May due to cancer and was ready to welcome a new animal into her heart and home.
Having no luck finding a French Bulldog through rescues and animal shelters, she turned to Craigslist, where she found an individual who wanted to rehome a French Bulldog. The adoption fee for the puppy was $400, but since the puppy was being shipped from New York (the original owner claimed to have needed to relocate last-minute to the east coast), Stacy would also need to pay $865 to a company called VIP Pet Relocators for a climate-controlled crate that would protect the puppy during shipping.
Once she made the additional payment, Stacy looked forward to receiving her new French Bulldog puppy. However, a third email arrived in her inbox, informing her that her puppy had been shipped with another dog that had contracted Canine parvovirus and that she would need to pay $1,800 for her puppy to be quarantined and tested.
It was at this point that Stacy suspected she had fallen victim to a scam. She had used CashApp to send payments for her puppy throughout the adoption process, but like many other digital money apps, because she had already authorized the payments, she was unable to recover her money.
Lindsay B. from Sacramento, California is one of many puppy scam victims whose total money lost amounts in the thousands.
With no children of her own, Lindsay has always enjoyed the companionship of dogs and sought to adopt a Goldendoodle to ease her loneliness during the pandemic. She found a breeder online who required that she fill out multiple questionnaires before approving her to adopt two puppies.
Once approved and with a contract signed, the breeder walked her through sending payment ($2,600) through Zelle. Afterward, Lindsay received an email that provided her with tracking information on the shipping progress of her puppies as they made their way to California. For three days, the tracking website was updated with their progress, but then on the final day, the tracking updates suddenly stopped.
Concerned about her puppies, Lindsay reached out to the breeder, who assured her he would check up on their delivery status. He never called back, however, and stopped answering Lindsay’s calls and emails.
Lindsay contacted the local police, the FBI, and other authorities, but as with the majority of those in her position, little could be done to recover the money she’d lost.
Honest Paws spoke to three victims of puppy scams, and common red flags included:
1. The seller claims that due to social distancing regulations, you will not be able to see the animal in person before adoption and/or is unable to provide you with multiple pictures/videos of the puppy up for adoption.
2. When performing an internet search of a picture of the puppy you’re considering, you notice the same picture appears on multiple websites or in Facebook groups. You can use Google’s helpful ‘reverse image’ tool to find instances where the picture is being used elsewhere on the internet.
3. When performing an internet search for the text from ads or testimonials on a breeder’s website or ad, you notice they’ve been copied from other websites.
4. The breeder’s website offers no information about the sire or dam of the litter and/or is unable to provide proof of health records or AKC Certification.
5. The seller asks for payment up front through Western Union, MoneyGram, a digital money app like Zelle or CashApp, or via a gift card.
6. In the case of purebred breeds, the puppy in question is being offered at a significantly steep discount when compared with the average price for a puppy of its breed.
7. The seller or a third party asks for payment to cover additional items such as a climate-controlled crate for shipping, vaccinations, or transportation insurance/life insurance. In many cases, fraudulent emails will claim the shipping costs/crate rental feels will be refunded upon the puppy’s delivery. However, they never are.
8. The adoption contract contains multiple spelling or grammatical errors.
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