LEE COUNTY, Fla. — With the pandemic increasing the demand for furry friends, the Better Business Bureau says they have seen a surge in online pet scams.
The BBB says people are paying hundreds of dollars to scammers for puppies that don’t exist.
And with the holidays underway, the BBB is warning pet shoppers to exercise extreme caution when looking for a pet online, especially as scammers evolve in their tactics.
Stephanie Cicillini knows this scam all too well after falling victim during her search for a Bernese puppy.
“I fell in love with the breed, and it was really so the dog could be an emotional support animal because I was dealing with a really hard time,” said Stephanie Cicillini.
Cicillini's quest for the perfect furry companion started with a google search, eventually finding a puppy on a website she believed to be the real thing.
“They were probably third from the top, so I thought the website was at least verified because I wouldn’t think it would be so far up,” said Cicillini.
"I looked through everything; they had a history on the [dog's] family, they had an extensive list of all the male dogs they were breeding."
Cicillini says she reached out to the breeder via email, and after working everything out, she ended up paying $1,200 for the puppy and an additional $600 to have the puppy flown from California to Florida.
Cicillini says the breeder explained they didn't take credit card payments, so she paid the $1,800 via Chase Quick Pay.
“We scheduled the dog to arrive on November 7, a week after I sent over the payment,” said Cicillini.
When that day came, Cicillini says the breeder called her, letting her know the puppy was on its way to the airport.
“He sent me photos of the dog on the way to the airport, which I thought was a little weird because I tried to save the photo and see when the date was taken, and there was no background information, so I was like it kind of looks like a screenshot,” said Cicillini.
But shortly after, Cicillini says the courier company in charge of sending the puppy contacted her saying they needed an additional $1,000 for travel insurance.
She says she did a quick google search and realized the airline did not require such insurance.
“I called the seller, and it was the same guy, except he tried to disguise his voice,” said Cicillini.
Right there, she realized she’d been scammed.
“I tried to get a refund, he ended up blocking my number, then the number got disconnected,” said Cicillini.
"The day came, and I didn't get the dog; I didn't care about the money; I was more upset about the dog."
Since then, the website where Cicillini ordered the puppy seems to be inactive.
“These puppy sites are created, they do several costumers, and once people get wind of it, they shut the website down,” said Bryan Oglesby, Director of Public Relations and Outreach with the Better Business Bureau of West Florida.
The BBB has received nearly 4,000 puppy scam reports so far this year but estimates that number to be up to 4,300 scams by the end of the year with about $3.1 million in losses.
Oglesby says there are red flags to look out for.
“The first thing you want to do is go separately to the internet and search the name of that company or that breeder and add the word complaint after the search to see what others are saying,” said Oglesby.
Oglesby says there are third party websites that will vet and verify breeders.
"Petscams.com and Better Business Bureau at BBB.org are two great sites that you can go to see what others are saying about these websites," said Oglesby.
The pandemic has given scammers a new tool in their arsenal.
BBB Scam Tracker reports show that many fraudsters tell would-be pet owners they cannot meet the animals before sending money.
"Our tips in the past have been you should always visit the breeder and visit the puppy, sometimes that's a concern with covid so at least at to do a video chat," said Oglesby.
Oglesby says fraudsters are also making COVID-19-related money requests for items such as special climate-controlled crates, insurance, and a (non-existent) COVID-19 vaccine, according to Scam Tracker reports.
Recommendations from BBB for buying pets online include:
- Do a reverse image search of the pet's photo and search for a distinctive phrase in the description.
- Research to get a sense of a fair price for the breed you are considering. Think twice if someone advertises a purebred dog for free or at a deeply discounted price.
- Check out a local animal shelter online for pets you can meet before adopting.
Who to contact if you are the victim of a pet scam:
- Petscams.com - petscams.com/report-pet-scam-websites [u7061146.ct.sendgrid.net] tracks complaints, catalogues puppy scammers and endeavors to get fraudulent pet sales websites taken down.
- Federal Trade Commission (FTC) - reportfraud.ftc.gov [u7061146.ct.sendgrid.net] to file a complaint online or call 877-FTC-Help.
- Better Business Bureau - BBB Scam Tracker [u7061146.ct.sendgrid.net] to report a scam online.
- Canadian Antifraud Centre - antifraudcentre-centreantifraude [u7061146.ct.sendgrid.net] or call 1-888-495-8501 for scams involving Canada.
- Your credit card issuer - if you provided your credit card number, even if the transaction was not completed.