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Puppy Scams Return!

How much is that doggy on the computer screen? With a recent resurgence in the longtime Puppy Scam, it’s costing some pet-seekers thousands of dollars and heaps in heartbreak.

That’s because they fall for an adorable pup pictured online — on Craigslist, Facebook or a website supposedly for a reputable breeder — that’s advertised “for sale,” adoptable for free to a loving home, or in response to their own “wanted” posts seeking a pet.

Problem is, there is no animal. Photos and descriptions are lifted from other websites — often those of legitimate breeders — and the self-described animal rescue workers, breeders and distressed pet owners are scammers. Some pups are touted as prized purebreds (yet available at bargain prices), others as everyday pets in a need of a home, usually with a compelling backstory to further whet appetites. (Favorite tales for the pups’ availability allege to be from a soldier unexpectedly being deployed or on behalf of a grandmother hospitalized just after a beloved dog gave birth to a litter.) After contact is made — typically by email — would-be pet parents may even receive vaccine records, guarantees of health or glowing reviews about the seller.

What comes next: Eager pet parents are told that upfront payment is needed for adoption fees or to ship a pro bono critter to its new forever home. Once the money is sent by requested wire transfer or prepaid debit card, scammers claim unexpected delays and surprise additional fees — for insurance (which is not required for an animal to be shipped or to travel), veterinary care, a specialized crate, quarantine costs or other supposed snafus. It can continue until victims eventually wise up, realizing it is themselves — not an anticipated canine — that’s in the doghouse.

If searching for a new best friend online, know this:

Act locally. Pet scammers nearly always claim to be far away (and actually are, usually in Nigeria or another foreign hotbed for fraudsters) and say they need to ship the supposed critter. Yet reputable breeders and many rescue shelters typically don’t sell or ship dogs to people they haven’t met or vetted.

Why even consider a puppy said to be thousands of miles away? Shipping swindles aside, you’ll want to meet that potential family member to gauge personality and temperament. So use the internet wisely, finding local animal shelters, rescues, breeders or breed-specific rescues by typing a desired breed type and your zip code into an online search engine. Pets (especially rescues) found on Petfinder and similar sites may be shipped from another state, but should be with a local foster family or facility for a face-to-face meeting before money is exchanged.

Don’t rely on email. Because it offers anonymity and is hard to trace, pet (and other) scammers prefer all correspondence be done solely by email — not by telephone or in person. To justify email-only correspondence, some pet scammers claim to be hearing-impaired. Don’t trust advertisements or responses to “wanted” postings that list only an email address but no phone number.

Get “personalized” photos. If the pet actually exists, there should be no problem getting more photographic proof. Ask for several “personalized” photos with the pup posing with a specific item you request, such as a recent newspaper or ball. If not received, assume there’s no animal and you’re being set up for a scam.

Beware of payment ploys. Unlike legitimate breeders and shelters, pet scammers do not accept credit cards. They insist payment be made via Western Union, MoneyGram or prepaid debit card because it’s like sending cash — immediately redeemable anywhere in the world, hard to track and impossible to get back. And don’t trust any checks you may receive (say, a so-called advance for third-party charges) with instructions to deposit it and forward a portion back to their “agent.” These checks are counterfeit, and your bank will hold you responsible for money forwarded or drawn from their deposit.

Do your homework. If there are claims of using a pet relocation service such as Animals Away or delivery at a local airport, call to check about your specific pet shipment before paying shipping fees, looking up the number yourself. Scammer-run websites often look authentic because the content is stolen from another site, so check for duplication by copying descriptions and photos into a search engine and looking for identical wording elsewhere on the internet. Also check domain name ownership of websites for self-described breeders and shelters and insist they provide registration and association membership information that matches their contact information.

Give yourself a reality check. Ask yourself: Why would someone go to the trouble and possible costs of placing advertisements of show-quality pups for a fraction of their worth (or for free)? What are the odds that some do-gooder who volunteers at an overseas orphanage has time to find an American home for a puppy in Africa, or that a quick transaction is needed because of an unexpected but heartstring-pulling life change? Why are pups claimed to be treasures and treasured even offered on the internet, up for grabs to just about anyone who bites?

For information about other scams, sign up for the Fraud Watch Network. You’ll receive free email alerts with tips and resources to help you spot and avoid identity theft and fraud, and keep tabs of scams and law enforcement alerts in your area at our Scam-Tracking Map.

Photo: MarkusSchiemann/iStock

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