Avoiding scams when purchasing a pet on the internet

The two main stages of a pet scam are the hook and the sting. The first stage is usually a scripted message that promises pet care items and documentation after the sale.

As part of the process, victims are often sent pictures and videos that have been stolen from reputable breeders to convince them that the animal is real. At this stage, the goal is to get the victim to pay a deposit. This will be in the form of a non-refundable fee.

The scammer will then move on to the second stage, the sting, once the victim has been hooked.

Scammers usually operate a second site, which is a pet shipping service. They will then ask for additional fees to try and get the money. The scam will continue until either the victim runs out of cash or realizes that they have been duped.

In this stage, the most common request is for a refundable cargo box. They often claim that it is “temperature-controlled” even though planes have climate and pressure control already. Offenders can also make up their own stories and scenarios. One victim I read described paying US$10,000 after being told that there was a plane accident and that the transaction had involved significant legal costs.

How the puppy scam works

Pet scammers usually target larger geographical areas, such as the US and Australia, where buyers do not normally see their pets before purchasing. Action Fraud in the UK recently announced consumer loss from pet scams totaling over PS280,000 in two months. This is due to the fact prospective buyers were unable to travel in order to see the pet in person.

Growing problem

Pet scams are nothing new. In a study conducted by the US Better Business Bureau in 2017, it was found that as much as 80% of all sponsored links to pet websites are created by offenders.

The number of victims of this scam and its estimated cost to consumers are both increasing. Victim complaints to the US Better Business Bureau have quadrupled from 2017 to 2020 to more than 4,000.

For those seeking to buy a pet online, especially during the pandemic, the acid test of finding out whether you are interacting with a scammer is to have a video chat with any prospective seller. In normal circumstances, this can be taken one step further by always visiting the pet in person. Another good resource available to prospective buyers is my site, petscams.com, which is the largest publicly accessible website dedicated to documenting fraudulent pet and shipping websites.

Researchers who want to investigate non-delivery scam websites in greater detail have a great opportunity. In the case of pet fraud, one promising avenue is to examine the willingness of domain name registration companies to remove these websites due to the increasing threat they pose to consumers. Research has shown that fraudulent pharmaceutical websites tend to gravitate towards “rogue domain registrars”, whereas other registrars, who take down these domains, can disrupt scammers’ activities.

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