Better Business Bureau (BBB) advises extreme caution if shopping for a pet online. According to BBB Scam Tracker, online shopping scam reports have skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic, and pet scams make up 35% of those reports in 2021. While pet scam-related reports are down slightly from 2020, they are expected to double this year to those reported in 2019, and more than four times as many were reported in 2017, when BBB published its first investigative study about online puppy scams. 

Scammers frequently capitalize on the high demand during the holiday season by posting pictures of pets in Christmas hats and other gear. When a would-be pet parent pursues the listing, the scammer refuses to let the consumer meet the pet before buying – often claiming COVID-19 considerations. The scammer claims that they must use a pet delivery agency of some kind, often an airline. BBB Scam Tracker has received many reports of fake web pages impersonating real businesses for this purpose. The scammer also may demand fees for vaccinations or other last-minute “needs.” Ultimately, the pet does not exist, and the consumer has lost money and emotional investment. 

The tactics used in pet scams continue to evolve. Scammers increasingly ask for payment through untraceable cash apps such as Zelle, Google Pay, Cash App, Venmo and Apple Pay.  A review of BBB Scam Tracker data finds that most reports listed Zelle as the payment method involving the purchase of online pets. 

Law enforcement agencies in the United States and abroad have worked to catch pet scammers. In December 2020, The U.S. Department of Justice announced criminal charges against a Cameroonian citizen living in Romania. Among other tactics, the suspect claimed that the pets he was selling had COVID-19 and demanded potential buyers to purchase a “vaccine guarantee document.”

BBB Recommendations for Buying Pets Online: 

  • See the pet in person before paying any money. Consider a video call with the seller if there are concerns about meeting in person because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This way, you are able to see the seller and the actual pet for sale. More often than not, scammers won’t comply with the request and help avoid a scam. 
  • Conduct a reverse image search of the photo of the pet and search for a distinctive phrase in the description. 
  • Research the breed to get a sense of a fair price you are considering. Think twice if someone advertises a purebred dog for free or at a deeply discounted price … it could be a fraudulent offer. 
  • Check out a local animal shelter for pets to meet in person before adopting. 
  • BBB urges more law enforcement action against pet scammers. 
  • The media and public should help to educate those looking for pets online by sharing BBB’s tips and study

Who to contact if you are the victim of a pet scam: 

  • Petscams.com – petscams.com/report-pet-scam-websites tracks complaints, catalogues puppy scammers and endeavors to get fraudulent pet sales websites taken down. 
  • Federal Trade Commission (FTC) – reportfraud.ftc.gov to file a complaint online or call 877-FTC-Help.
  • Better Business Bureau – BBB Scam Tracker to report a scam online. 
  • Your credit card issuer – report the incident if you shared your credit card number, even if the transaction was not completed. 

Read more about pet scams on BBB.org. If you’ve been the victim of a scam, report it to BBB Scam Tracker. To find a business you can trust, check out BBB.org.