If you’re browsing the Web to find that next furry addition to your family, the Better Business Bureau advises you to watch out for scams that are popping up online.
Unlike other stings that involve money, property, or merchandise, this “puppy scam” is pulling at the heartstrings of many – because, says the BBB’s Tammy Ward, someone really wanting an animal who goes online could lose thousands of dollars – and end up empty-handed.
“We’ve had situations where they’ve sent money and [the pup] is supposed to be flown to you,” said Ward. “[Then they say,] ‘oh, well something happened at such-and-such airport, so we need more money for this and more money for that.’ And in none of these situations was the animal actually real.”
The BBB’s ScamTracker reports more than 900 such instances of fraud, and a Federal Trade Commission report found some 37,000 complaints involving animals. Experts also believe up to 80 percent of online sponsored ads about pets could be bogus.
“It came across that one of the consumers that lost money to the scam put it in our system,” Ward said. “And because the address that they gave us was Panama City, then it came to our Better Business Bureau.”
Ward, who’s in the Bureau’s Pensacola office, says the scammers created three websites – two in Kentucky and one in Texas. One has since been taken down and another eventually was seen in the Panhandle.
“They create these websites and copy-and-paste real pictures of people with puppies,” said Ward. “They don’t give an address on the website; but where the address came from was when the people received the invoices to pay. And so that was where the Panama City address came from.”
The investigation included speaking with the person in Panama City, who said she had contacted another mark in California. As mentioned, the ads offer for sale animals that basically didn’t exist, and customers were actually paying for them.
“One that lost $1,900, and a second victim lost $800,” Ward said. “Now, the third person we heard from actually contacted our Better Business Bureau here in Pensacola. He did not lose any money because he did a little bit more research before he actually gave them anything.”
The total number of victims remains a mystery, in large part because many of them are too embarrassed to report it. Of the three websites, one has since been taken down. The Panama City resident – who was not named -- worked with the BBB, when someone drove six hours to her house to collect their “puppy.”
For now, Ward says, law enforcement is not involved.
“We are not going to do anything unless law enforcement contacts us; but that’s what the ScamTracker does,” Ward said. “We ask the consumer to put in all the information that they have; and then we have a special section on the ScamTracker website where, if law enforcement is actually looking [at] and tracking a certain scam, they can contact us and we can provide them with all the information.”
An extensive study of online puppy scams has been conducted by the BBB International Investigations Initiative. Areas include the scope of the problem, who’s behind it, and the need for consumer education. The study also offers some tips for protecting your bank account; rule number one is: don’t buy a pet without seeing it in the flesh – or in the fur.
“In today’s society, everything is on the Internet; everybody wants to go online and do something,” Ward said. “It’s fine to go online and research, but you just want to be careful. We call it the ‘Puppy Scam,’ but this goes across all forms of different animals that this can happen to.”
Never pay a stranger – for pets or anything else – with a money order or through Western Union or Moneygram. Ward says paying a scammer those ways ensures that, even if you do catch the fraud, chances are you still won’t get your money back.
“The best way would be credit card, because that is not actual money that would come out of your checking account,” says the BBB’s Tammy Ward. “But checks are possible too, because you can trace that and you can prove that it was fraudulent. But credit cards are the best way because you can dispute the charge with your credit card company.”
If you feel you’ve been the target of a scam – puppies or otherwise – there’s no shortage of agencies to contact. The Better Business Bureau is at www.bbb.org; www.Petscams.com, and by phone, the Federal Trade Commission at 1-877-FTC-HELP.