Cute puppies – and scams – abound online

A Pennsylvania consumer reported on BBB’s Scam Tracker, “I paid $700 for a kitten that does not exist. My kid is devastated because she was waiting for a kitten to be delivered to our house today.” Another consumer wrote, “All we wanted was a puppy to help us get over the deaths of our beloved pets.”

Consumers should be careful when searching for their new furry family member online, which has become the new marketplace for adopting pets. Online ads usually show photos of adorable puppies or kittens to be re-homed, sold at a low price or offered for free if the potential owner pays “transportation charges.”

Scammers will even go so far as to send a questionnaire to the buyer asking for personal information as part of the application process. They reel you in with attractively low prices for popular breeds and promise to deliver the pet to your doorstep. The scammer may also require that “shipping” fees be paid in advance by wiring money or using a prepaid debit card. Scammers may even use the name of a legitimate transportation company but give fraudulent contact information.

Once the money is received, the seller claims the pet is on the way but requests additional funds for charges such as taxes, insurance, vaccinations, new kennels – all sorts of concocted fees to extort more money. Some emails even promise that the fees will be “refunded” once the pet has arrived.

Not only do these puppies and kittens not arrive at their destination, but they typically don’t even exist. Consumers all over the country have been scammed out of hundreds and, sometimes, thousands of dollars on each of these scams.

Potential pet owners can look for red flags that an online sale may not be legitimate:

• Is the seller requesting that the payment be wired or put on a prepaid card? It’s never a good idea to wire money to someone you don’t know – it’s the same as sending cash. The money cannot be traced or recovered.

• Do the ad and emails contain poor grammar and misspellings? Many fraudulent schemes originate overseas, so scammers may not have a good grasp of the English language. And be wary if the seller only wants to communicate by email or text, but not by phone.

• If the seller is pressuring you to make a decision right away, that may also signal a possible scam. A sense of immediacy can cause victims to act without doing proper research. One fraudulent email stated, “We urge you to make the deposit within the next 30 to 45 minutes before departure time at 10 a.m. today.”

• Is the price too good to be true? Be wary of any ads offering rare breeds for lower than market prices or offering the pet for free (if shipping is paid). Scammers often weave sad tales: “I’m just looking for someone to provide my kittens with care and love because my daughter, who was their companion, died a month ago and now they are lonely.” Then, be suspicious if the seller requests upfront shipping costs for a third-party transport company.

Before responding to an ad, you can do an online search by pasting the wording into a search engine. You may find information or complaints from others about the seller.

Be cautious when shopping online for a pet and look out for red flags that may indicate a scam. A good piece of advice: consider adopting locally.

Michelle Tabler is the Better Business Bureau Alaska Regional Manager.