Online scammers have been busy as the holiday season has collided with the COVID-19 pandemic in Fairfax County. One type of scam that is particularly alarming, and gaining strength, involves puppies and other pets such as kittens, iguanas and lizards.
As reported by Fox5DC last week, Fairfax County Police are looking into cases of puppy scams. Victims who contacted the TV station reported being scammed on Craigslist.
A spike in the number of reported pet scams has been noticeable since the pandemic started and is likely to grow as the winter holidays approach, according to the Better Business Bureau.
“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,” said Marjorie Stephens, BBB serving Northern Indiana president and CEO, said in a statement. “People currently shopping for pets online are prime targets for fraudsters trolling the internet looking for want-to-be pet owners.”
Instead of trying to buy a pet online, people can visit a local animal shelter. Local shelters have dogs, cats and other animals ready and waiting to be adopted.
Nichole Thomas, communications director for the Northern Indiana BBB, told Patch that “puppy scams” are nothing new but there has been a resurgence of them during the pandemic.
“Gamers are always out there, but when you have an economic downturn like this pandemic has brought, they ramp up their tactic because they are hurting, too,” said Thomas, who also recommends adopting a pet from a shelter rather than buying one online.
“Animal shelters are full around the holidays, so the best way to avoid falling victim to an online pet scam is to not purchase them online and go to the shelters,” she said. “Both my dogs are shelter dogs, so that is something very important to me.”Victims of pet scams will often find someone selling the animal online and make a transaction before ever meeting the pet — if the pet actually exists.
“Scammers are really good at coming up with excuses,” Thomas said. “Now, they will often say they can’t meet you in person to pick up the animal because of the pandemic.
“They may even say there was a ‘delivery problem’ for why the pet didn’t get to you on time and then scam you out of even more money. They want to string you along and get as much money as they can.”
These scams become more frequent ahead of the December holidays. With statewide restrictions and closures in play to slow the rapid spread of the coronavirus, more and more people are at home and feel they now have the time for a pet, Thomas said.
“New pets are very common holiday gifts, and people look at being home as an opportunity to get a new puppy or kitten, whereas it would be a hindrance if they weren’t at home as often,” she said.
Nearly 4,000 pet scams from the United States and Canada have been reported to the BBB in 2020 as of the end of November, compared with 1,870 in all of 2019. By the end of the year, the BBB projects 4,300 pet scams will be reported, costing victims about $3.1 million.
This November alone, 337 pet scams were reported, compared with 77 during the same month last year, Thomas said.
And the actual number is likely much higher, Thomas said.
“You could probably double those numbers and be safe, because oftentimes people will be too embarrassed to report it,” she said. “Especially if they experienced a significant financial loss.”
How to Not Become a Victim
Fairfax County Police recommend the following tips to avoid puppy scams:
Don’t buy or put a deposit on a puppy without seeing it in person or through a video chat with the seller.
Search the internet for a picture of the pet you are considering. If the same picture appears on multiple websites, you may be dealing with a scammer.
Never pay a stranger with a money order or through cash apps. If possible, use a credit card in case you need to dispute the charges.
Research prices for the breed you are interested in. If someone is advertising a purebred dog for free or at a deeply discounted price, you could be dealing with a scammer.
Be wary of a seller who only communicates through email.
Fairfax County residents who believe they were a victim of a puppy scam can file a report with the police department’s financial crimes online reporting. Reports should also be submitted to the FBI’s Internet Crimes Complaint Center (IC3) at www.ic3.gov.
This article originally appeared on the Kingstowne-Rose Hill Patch