COVID-19 causes increase of online puppy scams in 2020

Local News

MILWAUKEE, Wis. (WFRV) – The growing rise of the pandemic has created an unexpected increase in online pet scams for people who are quarantining.

According to a release, the COVID-19 pandemic has drastically increased demand for pets as people seek a pet companion to ease the loneliness and tension of prolonged time at home.

Authorities have noticed a spike in pet scams, in which an online search ends with a would-be pet owner paying hundreds of dollars or more to purchase a pet that ultimately doesn’t exist.

Better Business Bureau (BBB) advises extreme caution when shopping for a pet online, especially in light of scammers’ evolving tactics.

Soon after cities and states began to impose tighter restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19, BBB Scam Tracker says they saw a spike in pet fraud reports, with nearly 4,000 reports received in 2020 from the U.S. and Canada.

Data from BBB Scam Tracker shows more reports about fraudulent pet websites in April than in the first three months of the year combined, say officials.

The COVID-19 bump is continuing into the holiday season with consumers reporting 337 complaints to BBB about puppy scams in November 2020, a dramatic increase from 77 for the same month in 2019.

BBB Scam Tracker Data

YearPet Scam ReportsLosses
2017884$448,123
20181,578$718,248
20191,870$1,016,380
2020 (Jan. 1 – Nov. 30)3,969$2,843,552
2020 (projected)4,300$3,100,000
BBB Scam Tracker Data

The median loss reported to Scam Tracker in 2020 is $750. They say those aged 35 to 55 accounted for half of BBB reports in 2020.

Law enforcement and consumer advocates now say a person searching online for a new pet is extremely likely to encounter a scam listing or website.

Scam Tracker reports that many fraudsters are telling would-be pet owners they cannot meet the animals before sending money. 

Scam Tracker data indicates that mobile payment apps like Zelle and CashApp are often used now, whereas Western Union or MoneyGram wire transfers were popular payment methods documented in the 2017 study.

In addition, officials say pet scammers now commonly use online advertising tools such as sponsored links to boost their fraudulent listings in search results.

Petscams.com, which tracks and exposes these scams, recommends using another tool popularized by COVID-19 — video conferencing — to meet the animal and owner virtually before buying as a way of reducing scam vulnerability.

“COVID-19 has made for a long and uncertain year, and a ‘quarantine puppy’ or other pet has proven to be a comfort for many people, but it also has created fertile ground for fraudsters. People currently shopping for pets online are prime targets for fraudsters trolling the internet looking for want-to-be pet owners. Knowing the red flags associated with this scam can help consumers avoid heartache and losing their money,” says Jim Temmer, BBB Wisconsin president and CEO.

At the current pace, authorities say pet scams reported to BBB will be nearly five times as many as in 2017, when BBB published its first in-depth investigative study on pet scams.

The BBB says the projected dollar loss from these scams is expected to top $3 million, more than six times the total losses reported in 2017.

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