There’s an Enormous Rise in Pet Scams: Here’s How to Protect Yourself

People have been adopting or buying pets in record numbers this year, and pet scams are on the rise. Find out how to protect yourself and your family.

One happy side-effect of the 2020 pandemic? Increased pet ownership. Coronavirus lockdowns have kept more and more of us at home, and, in unprecedented numbers, we’ve been turning to furry and feathered friends to keep us company and lift our spirits. The downside? A sharp increase in pet scams, which dupe prospective pet owners into forking over lots of money and as often as not, leave them with no new pet to cuddle. Here’s a look at some of the most pervasive pet scams and how to avoid them, and what to do if you fall victim to a pet scam. Similar to these scams, you’ll also want to be aware of these area code scams.

Avoid mail-order pets

When you have your heart set on a certain breed of dog or cat, it’s tempting to go to great distances to obtain your dream pet. But buying a pet that has to be shipped to you, either via ground- or air-freight is a good way to get scammed. Unscrupulous sellers may require that you pay for both your pet and shipping charges in advance, only to send a last-minute, urgent email that more money is required for shipping. Another red flag? Sellers who insist that you pay by money order, mobile app, or gift card. Once they’ve separated you from your money they disappear, leaving you with no pet—and an empty wallet.

Be wary of ads for cheap purebreds

Craigslist and other free classified ad forums seem to be ground zero for pet scams. The pandemic has resulted in a huge increase of “backyard breeders,” unlicensed, inexperienced breeders trying to make a quick buck by breeding allegedly purebred pets. Too often, these animals are kept in deplorable conditions, and malnourished, worm-infested, or otherwise sick puppies and kittens are sold to unwitting consumers. Bottom line? If a purebred puppy that might normally cost thousands of dollars is being offered for a fraction of that, then buyer beware.

Buy from a reputable breeder

If you’re determined to acquire a purebred pet, then look for a reputable, local breeder. A responsible pet breeder is going to want to get to know you before they let you purchase one of their animals. They’ll be transparent in answering all of your questions about your pet and showing you that their animals are bred in a healthy, happy environment. If a face-to-face meeting can’t happen because of pandemic lockdowns, then a Zoom call or FaceTime should allow you to see the breeding environment, while the breeder will get to know you and see the home the animal will be joining. Learn other signs of a responsible breeder.

Avoid pet store puppies

That doggie in the window sure is cute, but he may not be healthy—and purchasing him may be supporting the notorious puppy mill industry. These animals are often kept in terrible conditions, with females bred continuously and adults and puppies malnourished and diseased. You may only learn of your expensive new puppy’s poor health after several costly pet bills, or, in a worst-case scenario, after the heartbreaking death of your new pet. Yes, cute, purebred puppies and kittens are in much higher demand right now, but that’s no excuse for a pet store to sell them. Most big-name pet stores, including PetSmart and PetCo, stopped selling puppies and kittens years ago, and instead have adoption programs in conjunction with local animal shelters.

Adopt from a local shelter

One sure way to avoid a pet scam? Don’t shop, adopt. There are millions of dogs and cats of all ages and sizes waiting in a shelter for a loving home. And sadly, millions more unwanted pets are euthanized each year. Adopting a dog or cat from a local shelter does a world of good—you’re saving an animal’s life and saving a lot of money, too. You probably won’t find the breed of your choice at an animal shelter, but you’ll certainly find a new best friend that’s eternally grateful for a second chance at life.

What to do if you’ve been scammed

The Better Business Bureau reports that pet scams more than doubled in 2020. And unfortunately, if you’ve fallen victim to a pet scam there’s usually very little recourse for recovering the money that’s been stolen from you. You can report the incident to the BBB’s Scam Tracker, or report the seller to Craigslist or wherever their ad ran. You can contact local authorities, though they may have little jurisdiction if the scammer is out-of-state or otherwise untraceable. If you bought a sick puppy or kitten from a pet store, you can attempt to get a refund, especially if the animal dies.

Thinking about adopting? These before and after photos of rescued dogs are all the encouragement you need.

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Elizabeth Heath
Elizabeth Heath is a travel and lifestyle writer based in Italy. Her writing on travel and sustainability appears in national and international publications and she is the author of several guidebooks. For and sister publication, she writes about pets (especially dogs!), books, seasonal gift guides, home improvement, and outdoor living.