The puppy was supposed to be a Christmas present for her husband, Bryan.
But after Lauren Case, a registered nurse in Warren, Arkansas, shelled out $ 850 via a cash app for a cute Yorkie cup of tea named Rosy that she saw online, she began to be suspicious.
She had paid $ 600 initially through Zelle, a payment app she had never used before but which her bank confirmed as legitimate. But then the alleged breeder demanded an additional $ 250 for a “nanny” to bring the dog to him on a plane. Finally, Case put the website address into a search engine and found numerous complaints.
“It was something I really wanted, so I ignored the little voice in my head,” she said, blaming herself for sending the money before proceeding with the verification.
There will be no puppies in the Case house this Christmas.
Despite many pleas, Case never got the Yorkie or his money back. The website then disappeared, Case said, only to appear later with the same photos of puppies.
In retrospect, she said, there were warning signs. There was no phone number and several words on the site were misspelled.
“You don’t think someone is going to fuck you, but they do,” she said in a phone interview.
Case has filed a complaint with the Arkansas attorney general’s office, which is reviewing the allegations. Similar complaints have exploded across the country, spurred in part by more people seeking to adopt pets during the pandemic. Attorneys general in many states have launched investigations, filed lawsuits, and issued warnings regarding pet fraud.
In the first year of the pandemic, pet adoptions have skyrocketed, according to the American Pet Products Association, with the number of owners increasing in 2020 to an all-time high 70% of US households.
But the pet frenzy has also created a shortage, giving crooks a greater openness in which to work. Pet scams “have more than doubled last year and are about to be about the same this year,” said Steve Baker, international investigations specialist for the Better Business Bureau, which features a scam tracker for fake pet sites. “It really, really took off during the pandemic.
“I don’t think it’s possible to search for puppies online without running into a scam,” he said in a telephone interview.
Scammers often model their sites after legitimate puppy companies, using the same fonts and sometimes even the same images and descriptions, but tweaking the images slightly – adding a holiday bow or Santa hat around this time. of the year, for example.
The Better Business Bureau said reports of online shopping scams to its BBB Scam Tracker – for scams of all types – have skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, people filed 1,515 pet scam complaints with losses of $ 1 million. In 2020, that rose to 4,552 complaints with losses of $ 3.3 million. Pet scams accounted for 34.5% of all online shopping scams reported to the office.
The number of pet scams remains high this year. In the first nine months of 2021, there were 3,116 reports with losses of $ 2.4 million.
The BBB says pet scammers generally don’t allow the buyer to meet the animal in person. Scammers also usually require the buyer to use some sort of ‘pet delivery’ service, with additional charges, such as delivering the animal to the buyer, a special crate for transport, or even some sort of COVID-19 protective shot (which doesn’t exist for dogs) once the buyer has made an upfront payment.
Younger people were more likely to be scammed in 2020, with 51% of them under the age of 44, and the average financial loss reported to the BBB Scam Tracker was $ 722.
While 82% of scam reports involving pets involved dogs, according to the BBB, other animals included cats, birds and iguanas.
Scams have damaged genuine pet websites. Courtney Dean, director of social engagement for pawrade.com, a legitimate site, said people stay away from online pet suppliers because they are afraid.
“People automatically assume when they see us that we are one of them,” she said in a telephone interview. “All day long, I defend our service.
She said breeders started working with sites like hers during the pandemic because they didn’t want strangers coming to their home to see new puppies. To combat the fears of potential buyers, Dean said, employees speak on the phone with each potential customer, put them in touch with the breeders so they can view videos or photos of the puppy, and provide a health guarantee of three years and 30 days of free animal insurance. Their advertised prices are also much higher than scams, around $ 2,000 for a labradoodle, for example.
Alabama resident Alicia Trevino, 18, was taken into care after choosing an Australian Shepherd puppy, with gray, white and black fur “and a little pink nose,” she said during ‘a telephone interview. She paid $ 700 through Apple Pay to secure the pup, then an additional $ 1,000 for shipping to an airport near her home.
Then the crooks wanted an additional $ 1,000 not to leave the dog at the airport, which they said would put her in danger of being charged with abandon puppy. They asked for an additional $ 1,000 because the puppy was allegedly sent to the wrong place. After spending $ 3,700, Trevino realized there would be no puppy. She filed a complaint with the Arkansas attorney general’s office because that is where the dog was allegedly shipped from. She did not get any money back.
Trevino eventually got another Australian Shepherd, as her boyfriend went to a breeder in Tennessee to retrieve the animal, which they named Bubba. Her advice: “Don’t browse stuff online.
Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, a Republican, filed a civil lawsuit earlier this year against two suspected pet con artists, Helda Berinyuy and Thierry Ekwelle, both Arkansas residents, for creating deceptive websites that advertised puppies for sale. The two are said to have taken more than $ 160,000 from consumers. The GA did not say whether Berinyuy and Ekwelle were the fraudsters suspected of having scammed Trevino. The couple reportedly went to an Arkansas grocery store on several occasions to collect money that was wired to the store, usually $ 500 or $ 700 at a time, and used several fake names.
The pair were also charged with fraud by a federal grand jury for allegedly defrauding more than $ 110,000 from unsuspecting prospective dog owners.
“During the holidays when puppies are popular gifts for children, puppy scams become more prolific,” Rutledge said in an emailed statement, adding that a new twist of scams is that some schemers are using cryptocurrency to collect money.
Veteranarians.org, a directory of pet doctors that also includes advice on topics related to animal health and welfare, analyzed the BBB data tracker from January 1 to October 31, 2021 and found that Montana had the most scams per capita, followed by Colorado, Nevada, Idaho, and the District of Columbia.
Of these states, Nevadans lost the most money, over $ 1,000 on average for each scam.
Lily Velez, head of special reports at Veterinarians.org, which analyzed the data, said in an interview that 12 of the top 15 states for pet scams also had high rates of COVID-19, which l ‘led to the assumption that residents were doing more. online shopping. She said there were several telltale signs of scammers.
“The biggest clue is that they are going to request payment through an online platform, Zelle, Venmo, or CashApp or a gram of cash or Western Union. The second tip is that you won’t be able to see the puppy in person. , and the third is that they are asking for more money on top of the adoption fees, ”she said in a telephone interview.
“With a reputable breeder, all costs are upfront,” she said.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, warned residents of his state about these scams, noting that “sellers should not harass you for money to book your puppy with sales tactics at high pressure or questionable wire transfers ”.
Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, a Republican, in a bulletin released earlier this year advised residents of his state to “carefully research ranchers and sellers.” Check complaints filed with the Ohio Attorney General’s office and review comments from other clients. Do not rely solely on information provided by the seller.
Jessica Gottwals, 36, from Omaha, Nebraska, asked a lot of questions. She wanted a second pug dog for her family, especially her 2 year old daughter, Annabelle. She struggled to find one locally, so she found a website that had a $ 600 pug, a cheap price.
“What is the harm? She remembered thinking. But the seller asked for an additional $ 150 shipping cost and payment by Zelle. “They did not offer protection against fraud,” Gottwals said. “I wasn’t comfortable paying that way. “
She asked for additional photos and veterinary records. When the salesperson, “Jason,” said his wife was a vet and didn’t need the records, it was a breakup for Gottwals. She called the number on the website; a man answered, but he hung up on him. She waited about a month and checked the website again – there was the same dog. She called the BBB.
Her story has a happy ending. She found a legitimate pug for sale in Kansas, just across the border, which she named Goose to accompany her older dog, Maverick.
Stateline is an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.