CHICAGO — The coronavirus pandemic presented the perfect opportunity to train a puppy at home, so 16-year-old Jillian Hanna of Mokena, Ill., found an Australian shepherd online last month and her mother made arrangements to buy the dog.
Caroline Hanna said she sensed something was wrong as she traded messages with a purported representative from the business about a puppy named “Kate” with a patchwork coat and mismatched eyes. In emails Hanna shared with the Tribune, she got contradictory answers alongside an assurance that the seller wasn’t trying to exploit the pandemic.
But Hanna wanted to believe, she said, so she sent $250 — money her daughter saved from a part-time job.
“My Spidey-senses were going off,” Hanna said. “I should have walked … and I didn’t.”
After the emails trailed off and a demand for a refund went unfulfilled, Jillian “cried all night,” her mother said.
The Hannas reported their situation to the Better Business Bureau, which says such scams are on the rise as homebound people look for companionship from new pets. Nationwide, the BBB received 371 complaints about dog scams in April, up from 118 during the same month last year, said Steve Baker, a St. Louis-based investigator for the consumer group and former head of the Midwest region of the Federal Trade Commission.
While pet rip-offs existed well before the pandemic, they are among the various scams — from fake tests and cures to bogus government aid — that authorities and consumer groups have warned about as fraudsters seek to exploit people’s fears and needs during the crisis. As of mid-April, the FTC had taken 18,235 reports of COVID-19-related scams of all types nationwide, according to the agency.
FTC spokespersons could not be reached for comment on the number of reports of pet scams nationwide during the pandemic.
Baker’s 2017 report for the BBB on dog scams traced many to Cameroon, where fraudsters set up websites advertising in-demand breeds of dogs at low prices. Often the sites use dog pictures lifted from other sites, and Baker said scammers sometimes copy entire websites from real breeders and insert their own contact information.
“These are professionals. These are organized guys,” he said. “I don’t think you can do an internet search for a puppy and not come across a scam. It really is that bad.”
Typically, scammers tell their victims that the dogs have to be shipped from a remote location, preventing a face-to-face meeting, according to the report. Once a buyer has sent an initial payment, scammers sometimes demand more money for equipment, insurance or shots. Frequently, after would-be dog owners begin to suspect they’ve been ripped off, fraudsters claim the dog is trapped in transit and request more money to complete the delivery, the report states.
Their bases abroad generally keep scammers out of the reach of U.S. law enforcement and civil courts, Baker said.
John Breyault, a vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Consumers League, compared dog rip-offs to romance scams in which victims are tricked into sending money to people they meet while dating online. He noted that both exploit the victim’s desire for companionship.
Indeed, Caroline Hanna said her family badly wanted a puppy and they were “willing to almost play ignorant” when they thought they’d found one.
As she corresponded with the purported seller, Hanna noticed things that gave her pause. She saw the website described the dog, Kate, as a male, but she wrote that off as a typo. The person claimed via email to be in Texas but said the dog could be picked up in Virginia, which worried Hanna, but she figured the business might work with breeders around the country.
The person pressed Hanna to use a payment service she felt lacked the fraud protections of other services. During the exchange, the person wrote, “I can promise you we are very very legit and all we want is to see this pups in the best home possible not to exploit people especially in such crisis.”
Hanna sent the money, but grew concerned when she didn’t promptly get ownership paperwork. Eventually, she got an email with a crude-looking certificate that carried a stamp from the “USA General Attorneys Pets Advocate.”
“And I was like, ‘Ah, OK, we’ve been had,'” she said.
She demanded a refund but got none, she said.
Jillian said the experience was “heart-wrenching,” though she got over it quickly.
“I was just kinda angry that they would just lead us on,” she said.
The Tribune could not reach the person who corresponded with Caroline Hanna, and is not identifying the website because no one has been charged with a crime in connection with the failed purchase. The site remained active last week, but as of Monday morning it was no longer accessible.
The BBB’s 2017 report advised that the best way to avoid being scammed is to insist on meeting the dog in-person before buying. The organization also recommended closely examining the images and text on sellers’ websites and using Google to see whether they might have been stolen from other sites.
Also, buyers should avoid sending cash via Western Union or money order to strangers and should instead use credit cards so they can dispute charges, the BBB stated. Lastly, the organization said that buyers should be wary of prices that seem too good to be true.