Those big brown eyes. That tiny wiggly body. That little ball of fur. Puppy love comes so easily, and sadly, criminals know it. That’s why sophisticated con artists are using puppies as bait to scam you out of cash. These internet dog scams have become elaborate traps to skim hundreds or even thousands off your bank account—and it’s not just the gullible who suffer. Even savvy dog lovers can fall prey to these tricks.
Darlene White, Executive Director of the San Diego Animal Support Foundation, has seen and heard it all, and says the scam artists are getting more audacious.
“Many victims of puppy scams come our way. It happens every couple of weeks, usually in waves,” White says.
“Many victims of puppy scams come our way. It happens every couple of weeks, usually in waves,” White says. “The problem is actually getting worse.”
White goes on to explain some of the common problem scenarios when buying a dog online, and outlines the must-read tips to follow if you want to avoid being scammed.
What is an Online Puppy Scam?
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. That old adage certainly applies to buying a dog online. White says the schemers typically follow the same plot line.
“Usually, they say something to the effect of, ‘We’re not breeders, just a family whose dog had puppies and we’re just trying to find them a good home,'” White explains.
A quick Craigslist search yields warning ads like the one below from someone who fell prey to that same bill of goods—”the man said the puppies were given to him as payment for cutting grass.”
Here are some other common tactics used by scam artists:
- The use of disposable cell phones to disappear after a sale
- Stealing photos of puppies from legitimate breeders to lure in buyers
- Taking a down payment or deposit promising to ship a dog, never to be heard from again
- Faking vet records to pretend a dog is healthy and up-to-date on vaccinations
- Offering expensive purebred dogs at bargain prices, even for just the cost of shipping
The biggest scam may not even be losing your money outright—if you buy a puppy that has not been properly cared for, you may end up with a vet bill for thousands of dollars that you are still legally obligated to pay, even if the dog dies.
“We get calls all the time asking us to pay off parvo and distemper bills,” White says. “None of the non-profit organizations are going to step in and pay for these bills because we ask people to adopt puppies from shelters; if they choose not to listen to our advice, they’re on their own.”
Sadly, backyard breeders are now rampant, trying to make a quick profit selling dogs that can have serious health and temperament issues.
“Purebred is not necessarily well-bred,” White adds. “Stud services, proper research, quality vet care, quality food, and sanitary kenneling that result in a well-bred dog are expensive.”
Puppies who end up being sick are usually kept in dirty, cramped quarters. They’re not socialized or exercised properly and can often also have behavioral issues. White says if you think you’re “saving” a dog from puppy-mill like conditions, that’s only perpetuating the cycle.
“The real victims in this activity are the puppies and their mothers,” White explains.
There are “Lemon Laws” in some states for puppies purchased from breeders; the states that provide protection are: Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont, and Virginia, but White says that scam victims aren’t likely to get their money back.
Fortunately, there are some great tips to avoid falling victim to an online dog scheme.
Tip #1—Avoid Classified Sites
While it’s okay to check Craigslist for dogs from reputable rescue organizations or shelters, it’s not a good idea to try to buy a dog off the site.
“Good breeders don’t sell dogs on Craigslist,” White says. “Good breeders don’t need to look for buyers—they already have a good reputation and usually have a waiting list.”
White says scam artists frequently use free classified sites and other elaborate tricks like disposable cells phones and phony vet records to dupe people into sending them cash.
“The scammers are getting more and more clever in their practices,” White adds. “I see people deceived from all educational levels and economic backgrounds—no one is immune.”
Avoiding the scams may mean avoiding free advertising sites altogether.
Tip #2—Meet the Seller and Puppy
If a seller is reluctant to meet where the puppy is being housed, consider that a huge red flag.
“At no time should you adopt a puppy from anyone who wants to meet you at an off-site location,” White says. “If they don’t want you to know where they live or where their dogs are kept, that should never be ignored.”
The Humane Society offers this very thorough checklist to ensure you are getting a dog from a responsible breeder. White recommends taking the checklist with you and following it step-by-step.
“If the breeder is legit, then he or she won’t mind that you are being careful and following these recommendations,” White adds.
You should also want to meet your potential new puppy to see if they are a match for you and your lifestyle, instead of blindly ordering one based on a picture.
“Seeing a dog and saying, ‘that’s a pretty dog, I want that one and I’ll buy it’ is a bit like a mail-order bride,” California animal behaviorist Beverly Ulbrich says. “There’s no guarantee you’re going to like each other. You need to meet the dog and see if you have a connection.”
Matching the dog’s energy level with your lifestyle is also important to avoiding problems down the road—after all, you can’t be a couch potato with a hyperactive dog, or you’ll both end up frustrated and upset.
Tip #3—Get a Contract and Check References
Along the lines of meeting the seller, you should also verify their identity and story. Get a copy of their driver’s license and ask for references, including the veterinarian they use to care for their puppies. Follow up with the vet to make sure the records the “breeder” are supplying are legit. And get everything in writing—a contract is easier to legally enforce.
“Instead of focusing on a return policy, you should focus on wording that covers all your medical expenses in case of illness and genetic defects,” White suggests. “Of course, the trick is getting the breeder to respond to you when an issue arises, and good luck with that if you found them on Craigslist.”
Tip #4—Be Wary of Shipping Services
Even the shipping companies themselves—like O’Brien Animal Transportation and Services and International Pet and Animal Transportation Services (IPATA)—warn potential customers directly on their websites about growing occurrence of online puppy scams.
IPATA says the scam artist’s end goal is to take your money, and their tactics are bold:
- They use the names of legitimate pet shippers
- They pirate websites
- They illegally use logos of other companies
- They use a free email service—like Google or Yahoo!—instead of a company email address
- They tell you to lie to Western Union, saying you are sending the money for personal reasons rather than making a purchase
“They will lie, they will tell you sob stories, they will send you pictures of adorable animals—anything to get your money!” IPATA writes online.
For the full list of what to look out for, check out IPATA’s thorough list of possible scams.
Tip #5—Never Wire Money
Wiring money via Western Union or sending pre-paid cards as forms of payment are surefire ways of getting scammed. Scam artists tend to leave no trace so there is no way of holding them accountable for their actions.
“No self-respecting, legitimate breeder is going to ask you to wire money and then ship their valuable, pedigreed puppies off to an unknown buyer,” White adds.
If a seller is unwilling to offer refunds, that is also a red flag; legitimate breeders always take puppies back or help out if issues arise, as they are legally obligated to in many states.
Tip #6—Adopt, Don’t Shop
There is a surefire way to avoid paying for a sick puppy—adopt! Shelters and rescue groups make sure puppies and dogs are adequately cared for: the dogs are spayed or neutered, microchipped, up-to-date on vaccinations, and exhibit no demonstrative dangerous behavior—and for a meager adoption fee of usually no more than $300.
“There are millions of unwanted puppies, including purebreds, sitting in shelters and rescue organizations—this is where people should be looking for a dog,” White says. “Plus, the adoption fees for those puppies will be used to save other dogs.”
Not only will you be saving the life of a healthy dog, you’ll help break the cycle of scammers looking to make a quick buck.
“When you give money to irresponsible breeders, you perpetuate the problem,” White says. “They will not stop breeding until we stop buying.”
The Bottom Line
There are plenty of ways to avoid being puppy scammed online. Just make sure you do your due diligence. If you feel you have encountered a scam artist or have fallen victim to a scam, report it to the Better Business Bureau, which offers warnings of its own to avoid this growing problem.
You don’t have to spend thousands to get a great new dog. Local shelters that can offer medical history and temperament evaluations are always in need of adoptive families at a true bargain price, with that money going to help other dogs in need.
If you’re looking for a purebred dog, you can search online for purebred rescue groups in your area, which are often inundated with dogs in need of a forever home.