Everybody agrees that adopting a rescue dog from a shelter is always more praiseworthy. But if you're set on buying a puppy of a specific breed or age, note that online puppy scams have been increasing over the last few years.

Better Business Bureau (BBB) conducted a study on Craigslist puppy scams (and other similar internet sales of dogs), finding that 12.5% of all reported online purchase fraud was related specifically to puppy sale scams as consumers filed tens of thousands of reports.

The study also includes real stories of scammed people:

  • One person sent money to a breeder of Huskies, but never got the puppies.
  • Very similar thing happened with an English Bulldog breeder, but the buyers were able to identify the fraud just before sending the money.
  • A woman found an online ad to adopt a puppy from a family for free and she'd only have to pay for shipping, which she did, but the costs kept increasing (extra payment for faster shipping, dog's health insurance, etc.) and she kept paying until Delta Airline informed her she's been scammed. Delta sued the scammers later.

Most puppy sale frauds are done over the internet because online animal sales are still unregulated. US Department of Agriculture (USDA) are working on regulating this are through their Retail Pet Store Rule, but it is yet to be enacted.

There are three main ways online puppy scams are done:

  • Fake breeder's website which you find from an online search;
  • Ads website like Craigslist or eBay;
  • Facebook puppy scams where fraudsters disguised as real people post a sale of a dog for whom “they wish to find a new home.”

What Facebook puppy scam post may look like:

Facebook puppy scams

Here's an example of an email a scammer may send:

Craigstlist puppy scams email

Fraudsters primarily take advantage of people who want a purebred dog but do not want to pay a full price for the puppy at reputable breeders, which will often range from $2000 and up to $10,000 or even more. They offer the same breed dog for ten times less.

After the first payment is made by the victim, the scammer will often make up a believable story on why they need an additional payment, and the farce will continue for as long as possible. This site explains more about the whole process.

Important Facts from the Puppy Scam Study:

  • Scammers often target people in their late teens and twenties;
  • At least 80% of online pets sales ads and websites are fake;
  • Western Union and MoneyGram are the primary outlets used by fraudsters;
  • Most victims are from the U.S., Canada and Australia;
  • U.S. states with most scams are California, Texas, Florida and New York;
  • Most scammers are from Cameroon, West Africa;
  • The average amount victims lose is $300, but in some cases it was up to $5,000;
  • Most popular breeds are the ones most likely to be found on these fake ads (e.g. Yorkshire Terriers or French Bulldogs) because many people want to own them and they're more difficult/expensive to get;

Federal Trade Commission (FTC) also estimates that only 10% of victims will file a report. Thus, even though the number of complaints was nearly 40,000 in 2017, there are likely many more puppy scams taking place every day.

Here's how to spot them.

10 Signs of Puppy Scams

10 Signs of Online Puppy Scams

1. The Price is Fantastic!

You can't believe your eyes when you see the pictures and the low price. Generally, the purebred dog of this breed will cost you about $5,000 at a reputable breeder, but the ad or the fake breeder's website offers the same dog for only $500. If this is a local ad, the sellers will also have a reason to avoid a face-to-face meeting.

2. Discounted or Negotiable Prices

While some reputable breeders do in fact sell dogs they feel are not “show-worthy” at a discount, those dogs will be typically neutered. In the ad or website, if you see claims of the dog still being breed-worthy for future pups, there's a good chance you've just found a dog selling scam.

3. The Dog is Free (But You Pay for Shipping)

This is a common technique found on sites like Craigslist. The seller say they wish to rehome the dog and you only need to pay for the shipping. They will require you to wire them money through Western Union or MoneyGram (or use a prepaid debit card), securing the dog for you. Such money wires cannot be traced. They will also keep emailing you back about additional costs, such as quicker/safer shipping, etc.

4. No Refunds, Return or Warranties Against Health Issues

Reliable breeders take responsibility for and have confidence in their dogs. If there is something wrong with your pup, they will always help with what you need, or will accept the dog back for a full refund. Fake ones will not do that.

A reputable breeder is also able to tell you the dog's entire pedigree with ease, including health history and anything else you wish to know. A fake breeder will not have such information; however, this information can be falsified.

5. You Cannot Contact the Seller by Phone

The only communication with scammers will be through email or text messages, both of which can go through proxy servers to hide true identifications. However, even if someone does agree to speak over the phone, that does not indicate that it's not a scam. The only way to avoid this is through a face-to-face meeting.

6. Price Increases After Deposit

With the reputable breeder, the price you are quoted will be guaranteed, any “extras” itemized before the deposit and clearly spelled out in writing. With scammers, they will often add these “extras” one by one, like astronomical crate fees upward of $800, travel insurance for $1,000, increased shipping costs, and airport to door delivery.

Note that airports require picking up live animals on site, with appropriate documentation.

7. Refund Upon Receipt

Sometimes the “seller” will promise a partial refund of insurance or shipping costs upon the dog's safe delivery. This is a baited hook, making you feel more secure so you pay the extra fees. They may also pressure you by saying that failing to pay higher fees can result in your losing the selected puppy, or even worse – they will claim to report you to the FBI for animal abuse because you failing to pay puts the dog in danger.

8. Sad, Sad, Sad Story

This is most common with Facebook ads. The story as to why a person is selling or re-homing their pup or adult dog becomes more complex and heart-wrenching as it evolves. There is a death in the family, loss of a job, or moving to a place that doesn't take pets. Sometimes this is true, but unless you have a way of verifying it, remain wary.

9. Photos That Appear Elsewhere

One of the quickest ways to identify puppy scams is using seller's posted photos to see if they were published elsewhere. Fraudsters generally use pictures of real puppies from other ads or Facebook posts, and you can use Google's reverse image search to check if that photo has been posted anywhere else.

10. Same Seller with Different Breeds for Sale

This can happen any time, but you'll often see it during the holidays when people are more emotional about finding a new family pet. Reputable breeders typically do not sell different breeds and only focus on one, but a scammer may sell different breeds. This will be either in the same ad/website, or done separate (but you can search their email address to see if they posted any other ads with separate breeds).

10 Ways to Avoid Craigslist Puppy Scams

So how do you protect yourself from being scammed when buying a puppy or adult dog online? The two best ways is to either adopt a dog from a rescue shelter, or buy from a reputable breeder (here's a list of American ones). If neither of these is an option, here are some tips on avoiding Facebook or Craigslist puppy scams.

1. Education

Know about your chosen breed and any regulations that apply. A real and professional dog seller will always ask you questions because they care for their animals. For example, take Pit Bulls. Some towns do not allow this breed, and the breeder should know this, and they will need to research you before selling to you. Always dig up as much information about the breeder/seller online, and look at the Better Business Bureau or other reviews.

2. Referrals

Talk to other dog owners. You can also stop at a nearby dog-oriented event or visit a shelter. You can gather buckets of information from people passionate about pups and willing to give you referrals. Events can introduce you to reputable breeders or rescue organization in your area that you can work with in person.

3. Trust the AKC

The AKC collects information and enacts inspections of breeders throughout the country. For anybody wanting to buy pure breeds, this is a great starting place for finding a safe seller.

4. Call Local Vets

If you don't have one already, you are going to need a veterinarian anyway. You can talk to vets while also asking for their input on regional dog sellers that they recommend. Because they will often work on dogs sold from such places, they are a great resource of information.

5. Keep It Face-to-Face

Wait to buy a dog until after you've seen them up close, and met the breeder or group organizer. Make that first visit to the area where the dogs live. See how clean it is, how professional does it seem.

6. They May Want an In-house Visit

Some breeders do this but not all of them. After they sell the dog to you, they may want to see how the pup adapts to your space, other pets and household residents. This is a great time for you to make sure that the pup fits into your lifestyle, and it's also a sign of a reputable seller.

7. Don't Buy Online

Avoid internet purchases unless you can travel to meet the dog. There are dozens of sites that have pets-for-sale listings and according to the above study, 80% of them are scams. Reputable breeders typically have waiting lists and far more professional means for advertising. Again, you want that meet-and-greet and nothing less.

8. Get References and Use Them

Sometimes people think that just because references were provided, that everything is on the up and up. Use those references and call them up. Ask specific questions about their dog-buying experience. If all you get are fluffy, non-specific answers, that is a red flag.

9. Pay with Credit Card

Avoid any money wires at all costs. You want to have a payment method that is traceable, so that if need be you can dispute the purchase. Credit cards are best for this, and you can easily issue a chargeback if you get scammed.

10. Report Puppy Scams to Authorities

If you believe that you have encountered a puppy or adult dog buying scam, please report it. Here are some of the places you can quickly do this and help stop puppy scams:

You can also share this information with veterinarians, local animal groups, on Facebook or other social media. Word of mouth is a powerful tool. You can help another person or family avoid a heartache and losing money.

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The 10 Signs of Puppy Scams (And How to Avoid Being Tricked)