By Christine Hauser, The New York Times Co.
Sylvia Lopez, who was laid off from her job this year because of the pandemic, saw an adorable pug puppy named Ted online. For $400, a price advertised as a promotion, she bought the puppy and then paid more than $800 to have it flown from Virginia to her home in Texas, where she and her family were in quarantine.
Thousands of dollars later, after additional fees and a crate payment, the emails from the “breeder” and the recommended “courier company” abruptly stopped. Voicemail and text messages were not returned. Ted never arrived, and Lopez’s requests for a refund were met with silence.
“I was a trusting fool, and I paid the price for it,” said Lopez, 63, who provided emails and electronic records of the transactions. “I thought, ‘OK, this is going to be very simple. I pay money; I get the dog.’
“But that did not happen,” she said. “It is a very emotional letdown.”
Consumer groups say experiences like Lopez’s have become more common this year as more Americans seek to foster, adopt and buy dogs and cats as they isolate at home. In November, the latest month for which it had complete figures, the Better Business Bureau received 337 complaints from people about such scams, compared with 77 in November 2019.
Scammers are notorious for preying on people who are vulnerable during natural disasters, but the isolation of the pandemic has created fertile ground for those looking to exploit people who are seeking the comfort of four-legged companions, mostly puppies, consumer advocates say. Many use social distancing mandates to explain why buyers cannot see dogs in person before committing.
“The pandemic has given scammers a new tool in their arsenal,” the Better Business Bureau said in a report this month about the rise in puppy scams.
In what it called a “COVID-19 bump,” the bureau’s Scam Tracker, a forum for victims to report how they have been cheated, showed a spike in pet fraud reports in April as states were imposing restrictions on Americans’ movements.
The majority of the reports are for undelivered puppies, especially for Yorkshire terriers and French bulldogs, but kittens account for about 12% of the complaints, the bureau said.
Lopez was among the victims who filed a complaint.
On Nov. 16, about two months after she started the process of buying Ted, she sent an email to the breeder, who had given her name as Amanda.
“I am writing to you because at this point in time I have not received the pug puppy you were supposed to fly to me,” Lopez wrote. “I request humbly that you refund to me the $400.00 I sent to you through Zelle.”
She said she never received a reply or a refund.
Total losses from pet scams this year are projected to reach $3.1 million, the Better Business Bureau said, reflecting a steady increase since 2017, when consumers reported $448,123 in losses.
The scammers’ tactics are evolving. Many now use mobile payment apps like Zelle and CashApp, replacing wire transfers. They often use fake online forms to process credit card information. Then, when the cardholder gets an error message, they ask for electronic funds and often use the credit card information to fund their scams, the bureau said.
The Federal Trade Commission, which has been warning about online puppy scams for years, also said that the coronavirus had provided scammers with a new pretext to charge extra fees for virus-related “regulations.”
Some ask for money for special climate-controlled crates, “reimbursable” pet insurance and nonexistent coronavirus vaccines. Others ask for money for a COVID-19 “permit,” according to Petscams.com, which tracks fraudulent puppy websites.
Fraudsters also illustrate their sites with stock images of puppies and commonly tell buyers they cannot pick up the pet because of COVID-19 restrictions.
Scammers often go to elaborate lengths to appear legitimate, advertising their dogs as being registered with the American Kennel Club to “entice” a customer, said Brandi Hunter, a spokesperson for the club.
She said potential buyers could contact the club for verification. The club also recommends using Google’s image search function to see if a puppy appears on several websites. Hunter said consumers should avoid money-wiring services and be wary of conversations that happen only by text and situations in which money is requested right away.
“Puppy scams are prevalent around the holidays and generally involve someone who has no puppies at all, who is playing on the emotion of getting a new puppy to scam people out of money,” Hunter said.
This month, Daniela Harvis and her husband reached out to an apparent breeder in Virginia to buy a miniature Australian shepherd puppy named Huck as a Christmas present for their 11-year-old son, Lucas.
After a series of text messages requesting payment, Harvis used Zelle to pay $750. She was told a “nanny” would accompany the dog to Kennedy International Airport and then to their home on Long Island, New York.
She thought that the arrangement and language sounded off. Also, a texted video of “Huck” did not resemble the photograph on the website.
The next day, a man called and said that he had the dog in a crate and that she had to pay an additional $950 for “refundable” pet insurance.
Her offer to drive to Virginia to pick up the dog herself was rebuffed.
“At this point I knew,” she said. “I said to him, ‘Give me my money. I don’t think there is any dog.’” She never heard back.
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