Fueled by COVID-19, pet adoption scams on the rise 

You may have heard heartwarming stories about how all the animals in community pet shelters have been adopted out during the pandemic by people choosing this time to adopt a furry friend.

Unfortunately, scammers are busy looking for clever ways to defraud consumers out of their much-needed cash, and the pandemic is providing opportunities. Overall, Fraud.org has seen a 79 percent increase from COVID-related complaints from March to April alone. And one scam in particular — pet adoption scams — has seen a significant spike.

For the February-April time period, we have seen a 42 percent jump in complaints about pet adoption scams versus the same period in 2019. Our colleagues at PetScams.com also report a similar spike in interest, with more than twice the number of visitors to their website in April as they had in March.

This spike in pet adoption scams is undoubtedly being driven by the COVID-19 pandemic. These scams have been around for years, but the current pandemic circumstances are providing the perfect environment for scammers to succeed at this particular scam. Here’s why:

  • Traditional pet adoption channels such as animal shelters, rescue organizations, and local breeders been shut down due to the coronavirus, leading more consumers to look online for pets and stumble on to phony pet adoption websites;
  • The pandemic is forcing consumers to remain isolated, so more people may be searching for animal companions overall;
  • Because of social isolation required by COVID, potential pet owners may be more willing to try and obtain a pet that they have not seen in person; and
  • Consumers who are new to purchasing goods online may not be accustomed to spotting the warning signs of fake websites and may be more susceptible to these scams.

In a typical pet adoption scam, a criminal will create a fake website with a domain name related to a particular breed of dog or cat, potentially combined with words like “puppy” or “kitten.” The service will be advertised on classifieds websites, social media, via phishing emails, or by other means to drive traffic. The websites tend to have photos of cute animals to entice visitors to reach out to the website owner (who is, in reality, a criminal with no animals to offer).

Consumers who respond to the ads will be instructed to pay fees before the animal can be shipped. These fictitious costs may include “shipping fees,” “inoculations,” “quarantine fees,” “insurance,” or even “COVID-safe shipping crates.” Regardless of the excuse given by the “seller” of the fictitious animal, the aim is always the same: get the victim to continue paying and/or providing valuable personal information until they either catch on or run out of money.

A complaint we received from a consumer in South Carolina is typical of these scams:

We contacted a seller on Craigslist about a puppy that she was giving away for free. She lived in Montana so [she] would have to ship the dog, which was originally agreed to be only $300. The shipping company told us that they required $500 more for a crate. Then the next day they claimed the dog was stuck in Florida and we would need to pay an additional amount of $650 for pet insurance. … Once we stopped responding to the shipping company, they threatened [us] with dog abandonment, and the seller was also adamant that we are torturing the puppy.”

To avoid these scams, we suggest the following steps:

  • Put your search on hold. Avoid shopping for a pet until after the COVID lockdowns have been lifted. If you cannot touch an animal with your own hands, there’s a risk it could be a scam.
  • Never pay any fee to obtain an animal that you have not seen with your own eyes (as opposed to via pictures or videos online).
  • If anyone asks you to send money overseas, particularly to pet adoption scam hotspots such as Cameroon or India, it is a scam.
  • Beware of “free” pet offers online. These are often simply ruses to get you to pay shipping or other fees for non-existent animals.
  • If you are planning to buy a specific breed of animal, make sure you are working with a reputable breeder or rescue organization. The American Kennel Club and the American Humane Society are good places to start when looking for reputable, ethical breeders and rescue groups;

If you’ve been on the receiving end of a pet adoption scam or any other coronavirus-related phone call, email, or text message that you think is a scam, we want to hear from you! By filing a complaint at Fraud.org via our secure online complaint form, you can help law enforcement bring scammers to justice. We share complaints with our network of nearly 200 law enforcement and consumer protection agency partners who can and do put fraudsters behind bars.

Read our other Fraud Alerts here.