Sylvia Lopez, who was fired this year due to 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 over $ 800 to have it transported from Virginia to her home in Texas, where she and her family were in quarantine.
Thousands of dollars later, after additional fees and payment at the cash register, emails from the “breeder” and recommended “courier company” came to a screeching halt. Voicemail and SMS were not resent. Ted never arrived and Ms. Lopez’s requests for reimbursement were met with silence.
“I was a trustworthy jerk and I paid the price for it,” said Ms Lopez, 63, who provided emails and electronic records of transactions. “I thought, ‘OK, this is going to be very simple. I pay the money, I take the dog. ”
“But that didn’t happen,” she said. “It’s a very emotional disappointment.”
Consumer groups say experiences like Ms. Lopez’s have become more common this year as more Americans seek to foster, adopt and purchase dogs and cats when they isolate themselves at home. In November, the last month for which it had full figures, the Better Business Bureau received 337 complaints from people about such scams, up from 77 in November 2019.
Scammers have been known to prey on vulnerable people during natural disasters, but the isolation of the pandemic has created fertile ground for those looking to exploit people who seek the comfort of four-legged companions, mostly puppies, say consumer advocates. Many use social distancing warrants to explain why buyers can’t see the dogs in person before committing.
“The pandemic has given crooks a new tool in their arsenal,” the Better Business Bureau said in a report this month on the increase in puppy scams.
In what he called a ‘Covid-19 bump’, the Office Scam Tracker, a forum for victims to report how they have been cheated, showed an increase in reports of pet fraud in April , as states imposed restrictions on the movement of Americans.
The majority of reports are of undelivered puppies, particularly Yorkshire Terriers and French Bulldogs, but kittens account for around 12% of complaints, the office said.
Ms. Lopez was among the victims who filed a complaint.
On November 16, about two months after starting the buying process for Ted, she emailed the breeder, who had given her the name Amanda.
“I am writing to you because at this point I have not received the pug puppy you were supposed to steal from me,” Ms. Lopez wrote. “I humbly ask that you reimburse me for the $ 400.00 I sent you via Zelle.”
She said she never received a response or a refund.
Total losses from pet scams this year are expected to reach $ 3.1 million, the Better Business Bureau said, reflecting a steady increase since 2017, when consumers reported $ 448,123 in losses.
The tactics of crooks are changing. Many now use mobile payment applications like Zelle and CashApp, replacing wire transfers. They often use bogus online forms to process credit card information. Then when the cardholder receives an error message, they request 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 the coronavirus has provided crooks with a new excuse to charge extra fees for virus-related “regulations.”
Some are asking for money for special temperature-controlled crates, “refundable” pet insurance and non-existent coronavirus vaccines. Others are asking money for a Covid-19 “permit”, according to Petscams.com, which tracks scam puppy websites.
Scammers also illustrate their sites with stock images of puppies and often tell buyers they can’t get the animal back due to Covid-19 restrictions.
Scammers often go to great lengths to appear legitimate, advertising their dogs are registered with the American Kennel Club to “attract” a client, 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 feature to see if a puppy appears on multiple websites. Ms Hunter said consumers should avoid money transfer services and be wary of conversations that only happen via text messages and situations where money is requested immediately.
“Puppy scams are prevalent during the holidays and usually involve someone who has no puppies at all, playing on the emotion of having a new puppy to rip people off for money,” said Mrs. Hunter.
This month, Daniela Harvis and her husband contacted an apparent breeder in Virginia to purchase a miniature Australian Shepherd puppy named Huck as a Christmas present for their 11-year-old son, Lucas.
After a series of text messages asking for payment, Ms. Harvis used Zelle to pay $ 750. He was told that a “nanny” would accompany the dog to Kennedy International Airport and then to their home on Long Island.
She thought the arrangement and the language sounded. Also, a text video of “Huck” did not look like the photo on the website.
The next day a man called and said he had the dog in a “crate” and that she had to pay an additional $ 950 for “refundable” pet insurance.
Her offer to travel to Virginia to pick up the dog herself was rejected.
“At this point, I knew,” she says. “I told him, ‘Give me my money. I don’t think there is a dog. She never got an answer.