Scam Alert: How to Get a Pet and Not Get Taken

Avoid online animal listings, and take steps to protect yourself when buying in person. Consider a shelter animal.
Bev O'SheaApr 15, 2021

Many or all of the products featured here are from our partners who compensate us. This may influence which products we write about and where and how the product appears on a page. However, this does not influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own. Here is a list of our partners and here's how we make money.

Pandemic lockdowns and working from home led to a boom in people wanting to add a pet to their household. It was good for pets needing homes, but a heyday for scammers.

There are two ways would-be pet owners get scammed, says John Goodwin, senior director of the Stop Puppy Mills campaign for the Humane Society of the United States. Either the pet simply doesn’t exist, or it does but its history or health has been misrepresented.

When there is no pet

Many of us shop online for pets as we did for almost everything else during the pandemic. That’s a mistake, Goodwin says, and data backs him up:

  • The Better Business Bureau’s Scam Tracker saw U.S. and Canada puppy scam complaints hit 337 in November 2020, more than quadruple the number for November 2019.

  • The BBB projected 2020 dollar loss from these scams to top $3 million, more than six times the total losses reported in 2017.

  • Though dog and puppy scams are by far the most common, fraudsters also offer to sell and ship cats and kittens, exotic birds and horses.

Bogus listings may be on Craigslist, social media, websites or sponsored links on internet searches. Fraudsters copy legitimate websites to fool victims.

Derek Huntington of Capital Pet Movers in Woodbine, Maryland, said he learned of a scam when someone called him to ask when their puppy would arrive. His business website, including his phone number, had been copied. He says victims are not only asked for the purchase price, they often are later asked to pay for a special crate for travel and fees for vaccines, boarding or delivery. When victims stop paying or delivery is scheduled — sometimes complete with fake tracking information — communication stops.

Payments are typically made with payment apps or prepaid debit cards, which can be difficult or impossible to get refunded. Though the criminals don’t typically take credit cards, their sites may say they do. When a victim fills in credit card information, the transaction fails and the victim is directed to pay with a different method. But the fraudster now has data that can be used for identity theft.

The Humane Society’s advice for avoiding internet pet scams is simple: Don’t buy a pet online.

When the pet is real

Chelsea Amengual smiles and wears a party hat while sitting outside on a blanket and holding her French bulldog.

Chelsea Amengual's French bulldog puppy came with some health problems and turned out to be the product of a puppy mill. (Photo courtesy of Chelsea Amengual)

Even shopping in person may not be enough to avoid problems. Chelsea Amengual of New York City got a real puppy, but her French bulldog, Dijon, came with kennel cough, a persistent case of giardia — which is transmissible to humans — and some behavioral problems from living in a crate or display case all her life.

Amengual had done her research, even stopping people to pepper them with questions about their French bulldogs. She occasionally went into pet stores, telling herself it was to get to know the breed. One puppy captivated her as it snoozed in her lap, but it cost $5,000 and Amengual was reluctant to buy from a store. She walked away. A month later, the puppy was still there, reduced to $2,500. Amengual couldn’t bear to leave her there again.

Amengual was assured the puppy came from a reputable breeder and given a packet of information, including an American Kennel Club registration number that would turn out to be bogus.

With help from the Humane Society, she traced her dog’s origins to a puppy mill in Missouri. Mills are high-volume breeding operations that prioritize profits over pets’ well-being.

Pets for sale may have also been stolen. Or the puppy a victim “ordered” could be replaced with a different one or it could be ill, warns the American Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

How to avoid pet scams

Here’s how Huntington and Goodwin recommend that people find pets:

  • Adopt from a shelter. “Most of the time, when a dog is taken to a shelter, it’s not a behavior issue,” Goodwin says.

  • Meet the pet, and consider an adult. “With an adult dog, it’s easier to see personality,” Goodwin says. Puppies and kittens are harder to judge.

If you want a purebred pet, shelters still may be an option: 1 in 4 available pets is a purebred, according to the Humane Society. Other tips include:

  • Contact rescue groups for the breed you want. They may have a pet for you or be able to recommend a breeder.

  • Know typical prices and avoid deeply discounted or “free” pets, which can suggest fraud or a puppy mill.

  • Visit the breeder. Ask to meet the mother and see her living quarters.

  • Expect the breeder to ask you questions. Reputable breeders want to know that the pets they sell will be treated well and that new owners know what to expect.

Amengual hopes to add another dog to her household. This time, she plans to rescue.