Pet scams have spiked in the last year

Here’s what you can do to protect yourself.

Kitten cuddling with young boy

As the COVID-19 pandemic pushed community members indoors this spring, animal adoption boomed. In April, Animal Humane Society began accepting online interest forms in order to offer adoption services in adherence with COVID-19 safety guidelines. The response was staggering. We received more than 8,000 completed forms each month — for six months straight. Applications came from all over the country, and at all hours of the day.

People were determined to welcome an animal into their lives — having time they didn’t have before, being home when they couldn’t be previously, and looking for ways to ease isolation during a pandemic.

At the same time, the number of animals available for adoption in Minnesota dropped as transport efforts came to a halt across many states. Unfortunately, it’s become nearly impossible for AHS — and other rescue agencies in Minnesota — to meet the demand for adoptable animals, particularly puppies and dogs.

“Puppies have always found homes quickly through our adoption centers. But with so many community members wanting new pets this spring and summer, we saw dogs that would normally be waiting for their new family for 3, 4, and 5 days going home the same day they became available for adoption,” says Janelle Dixon, President and CEO of Animal Humane Society. “And it was and still is especially challenging for families seeking a puppy or kitten to adopt.”

As a result, people who might normally turn to their local shelter became frustrated, and started shopping and adopting online.

Enter the scammers.

Dog resting head on laptop

Pet-related scams more than double in 2020

A Better Business Bureau Scam Tracker report found that 25.2% of all reported online purchase scams in 2020 were related to pets and pet supplies. During the pandemic, the number of reported pet scams has more than doubled. In Minnesota, 77 consumers have reported experiences with online pet scams, with a total of $104,854 in reported losses. All complaints describe sending money electronically or by wire transfer to a company they found online and did not receive the pet as promised. Some even state they were contacted to send additional money for air transportation or special vaccinations because of COVID-19.

According to the Better Business Bureau, pet scams are expected to cost Americans more than $3 million this year; the current median loss is $750. Fraudulent listings for French bulldogs and Yorkshire Terries are particularly pervasive.

Victims of pet scams aren’t just hit financially — there’s an emotional toll as well.

Madi Goodrich, a Twin Cities resident, fell victim to one of these scams when looking for a miniature Schnauzer, the same breed she grew up with as a child.

“When I realized what had happened to me, I was just devastated,” says Madi. “It was such a yucky situation. My sadness and disappointment quickly turned to anger.”

Unfortunately, Madi didn’t have time to process her emotions for long. “I had to turn my focus and energy toward the scam and getting my money back.”

Puppy snuggled up to human's legs

The first signs of trouble

What happened to Madi is common. She’d found a local breeder after researching her options, but Madi didn’t want to wait for as long as it would take for her new puppy to be born, weaned, and ready to go home. Her excitement turned into impatience, and she decided to work with a breeder on the east coast instead. She came upon a website which had plenty of positive reviews, so she expressed interest, and quickly put down a $600 deposit — 50% of the total cost. Though she was asked to wire the payment, she insisted on using Paypal, which she would later find out was a wise decision.

The day before her miniature Schnauzer was to be put on a plane, she started noticing red flags — a lot of them. The breeder told her the cost of the plane ride had increased, and he couldn’t cover it because his daughter was in the hospital.

“So I called him,” said Madi. “I was super upset, and he ended up just telling me ‘I don’t have a dog for you, and never did.’”

Madi quickly filed a complaint with Paypal, and after months of investigation, she ended up getting her money back. She also found out that the faux breeder had coordinated dozens of other scams, not all of which were pet specific.

“I think all that excitement I was feeling before I knew I was being scammed was really influenced by this momentum … It was all building up to this one day when my new puppy would arrive on a plane,” said Madi.

Madi didn’t give up on her quest to become a dog mom. She decided to work with the local breeder she’d first identified. The experience was a stark contrast to the scam. She received photos of the pregnant mama dog, and would get regular text updates and videos after her dog, now named Lake, was born.

Now, Madi and Lake are an inseparable pair. Although their story has a very happy ending, the scam Madi endured is unacceptable — and it’s happening to more and more people.

How to avoid being scammed

  1. Only deal with a breeder or seller you can visit in person, and always ask to see the pet and inspect the property where it’s being cared for.
  2. Know who you are dealing with at the other end of the phone or internet, and never send money or give your credit card information or personal financial details to a stranger.
  3. Research rescue agencies or breeders. Commercial dog or cat breeders must register with the Board of Animal Health for each facility they own or operate in Minnesota. Licensure is mandatory in 25 other states as well.
  4. Avoid using unusual methods of payment, including virtual currency (such as Bitcoin, preloaded gift cards, iTunes cards, etc.). Many scammers will request that money is wired or sent via a pre-paid debit card or gift card.
  5. In pet scams, paying to ship these non-existent pets is typically required. Do not provide pre-payment. Only agree to provide payment once your new pet is in your hands.
  6. Avoid sites like Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and other free-pet websites. Instead use sites like Petango.com, Adopt-a-Pet.com, or Petfinder.com.
MN state fraud report form

Minnesota Attorney General fraud report form

What do to if you’ve been scammed

If you believe you’ve been involved in a pet scam, report it! Start with the police and report any compromised credit or debit card information to the card issuers. You can also call the AARP Fraud Watch Network (877-908-3360) for advice on steps you can take if you’re unsure of what to do. You should also file a complaint with your state attorney general’s office and the Better Business Bureau

Visit usa.gov to learn more about what to do to report scams and fraud.

You may never get your money back, so prepare yourself for that outcome, and turn your focus to healing emotionally. According to consumerreports.org, federal agencies rarely track down perpetrators of crimes against individuals. Rather, they use complaints to record patterns of abuse, which enables an agency to take action.

Finding a rescue organization or reputable breeder

Animal Humane Society partners with hundreds of rescue organizations across Minnesota. Review our list of rescue partners, some of which provide homes for specific breeds.

If you choose to purchase a pet from a breeder, AHS encourages you to diligently research potential breeders to ensure they’re not supporting inhumane or inadequate breeding practices. Read more about what to look for when identifying a responsible breeder.

“Even if you’re intent on finding a specific breed, be patient in your search,” says Janelle. “Many rescues, including AHS, are doing their best to re-evaluate and modify their adoption processes while adhering to guidelines that keep our community safe and healthy during a pandemic. We have the same goal as you do — connecting your family with a loving pet.”

Animal Humane Society’s current adoption process

Though our adoption centers remain closed to the general public, we’ve updated our adoption by appointment process to welcome adopters back into our shelters by appointment, which allows potential families to meet available animals before making an adoption decision. Learn more about Animal Humane Society’s current adoption process.

For caring, compassionate advice and resources to address all your animal concerns.

Contact the Pet Helpline