The stories are heartbreaking and, unfortunately, not uncommon.
In one, a woman from Western Pennsylvania went online to look for a pet and wound up paying $550 for a puppy, $675 for the supposed transit and an additional $175 for a high-quality protective crate.
The puppy never arrived.
These scams are not new, but they’ve spiked during the pandemic, according to the Better Business Bureau. People feeling socially isolated and emotionally vulnerable look for solace and affection provided by a new cat or dog, only to fall victim to online scammers.
The agency has issued a warning about puppy scams, most of them involving websites and advertisements for animals that either don’t exist or never make it to the buyer. Such schemes have even surfaced at Pittsburgh International Airport.
“We’ve had people call asking where they can pick up their puppy,” said Patti Getty, an airport customer service representative. “We’ve had people call and tell us their pet is coming in on a pet transit services flight in the cargo area.”
Dogs can be transported via airline, but Getty said that no carrier specializes in pet transport. “There’s not going to be a plane going from city to city delivering puppies,” she said.
Puppy scams were the subject of a 2019 in-depth study by the bureau. New data from BBB Scam Tracker shows that the scams have dramatically increased since the outbreak’s spread, with more reports about fraudulent pet websites in April than in the first three months of the year combined.
Caitlin Driscoll, a spokesperson for the Better Business Bureau of Western Pennsylvania, said scammers have good reasons to involve airports in their schemes.
“Unfortunately, pet shipments are often a component of these scams. Scammers will request that the victims pay to ship a pet by air, sending victims to bogus websites of pet transportation companies set up to support the fraud,” she said. “Pet buyers rarely realize that these transportation sites are often a part of the fraud.”
In a new COVID-19 twist, Driscoll said scammers are also telling people they need to send money for a special climate-controlled crate to ward off the coronavirus, pandemic insurance or a nonexistent COVID-19 animal vaccine.
According to the bureau, the best way to avoid being in a similar situation is to see the pet in person before buying it. If that’s not possible, perform a thorough internet search of the pet you’re considering.
“If you can find the same picture on multiple websites, the chances are good it’s a fraud,” Driscoll said.
She also advised being wary of anyone who asks for payment in the form of cash apps or gift cards, because there is no way of getting your money back if you’re scammed via those payment methods. Driscoll recommends paying by credit card.
Getty cautioned that by the time people contact the airport about a possible scam, it’s usually too late.
“Unfortunately, by the time they call us, the red flags already have been raised and they realize they are victims,” she said. “At that point, people are calling us looking for confirmation.”