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Better Business Bureau warns of spike in online 'puppy scams' during the pandemic

"It's a good time for some people to get that pet because they're home to train it but unfortunately a lot of these pets just don't exist," said Melanie McGovern.

TONAWANDA, N.Y. — The Better Business Bureau is warning people about a rise in online puppy scams during the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the Better Business Bureau, "Some families obeying stay-at-home orders have turned to the internet to look for a pet, thinking they would have plenty of time to help the pet adjust to its new surroundings. Many have come across scammers who advertise on websites for animals that don't exist and are never shipped."

Lauren Wlodarczyk of Tonawanda told 2 On Your Side she experienced this first hand.

"Me and my family, we actually lost our dog going on ten years two years ago and we had finally decided it's time to find another dog," she said.

She explained they took their search to the internet and thought they had found the one. 

"They had multiple pictures of this dog and a bunch of other dogs to choose from as well," Wlodarczyk said.

Wlodarczyk says they moved forward with the process and even put down money. She told 2 On Your Side, "It seems very real." However, it turned out to be a scam.

According to the Better Business Bureau, reports like this one have 'skyrocketed' during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"So that's why we've seen the uptick because it's a good time for some people to get that pet because they're home to train it but unfortunately a lot of these pets just don't exist," said Melanie McGovern, the communications director of the Better Business Bureau of Upstate New York.

McGovern said some scammers are even using COVID-19 as a way to get more money from buyers.

She explained, "They're charging people for a special crate because of the pandemic, that the dog needs to be shipped in a special crate. In some cases, they're saying that the dog needs to be tested for coronavirus. We know that's not a thing either." 

McGovern told 2 On Your Side there are reputable breeders online, but unfortunately, scammers try to mimic those websites. So how can you tell the difference?

"The biggest thing in the cases that I've seen in the past few weeks is the websites are newly created," she said. "If you click on the dogs and you do a Google image search, they appear on other websites as well. There's only an email address. There's no address. There's no contact information."

Tips for avoiding puppy scams, according to the Better Business Bureau:

  • Don’t buy a pet without seeing it in person. If that isn't possible, conduct an internet search of the picture of the pet you are considering. If the same picture appears on multiple websites, its likely is a fraud. You also can search for text from ads or testimonials, to see if the seller copied it from another website.
  • Avoid wiring money, or using a cash app or gift card. These payment methods offer no recourse and no way to get your money back if you are the victim of a fraud. Fraudsters may claim to accept credit cards, but may steal your credit card information to use it in other scams or inform you that payment didn’t go through and request the payment via wire service or gift cards.
  • Research prices for the breed you are interested in adopting. If a purebred dog is advertised for free or at a deeply discounted price, and then other payment is required for services like vaccination or shipping, it could be a fraudulent offer.
  • Consider reaching out to a local animal shelter. Especially during this time of quarantine, many shelters are looking for fosters to help relieve the animal's stress and reduce overcrowding at their facilities. The Humane Society of the United States refers consumers to local shelters.
  • If you think you have been scammed, report it to BBB Scam Tracker and the Federal Trade Commission. In Canada, contact the Canadian Antifraud CentreYou also can report it to petscams.com, which catalogues puppy scammers, tracks complaints and endeavors to get fraudulent pet sales websites taken down. 

Wlodarczyk said she hopes sharing her story will keep others from learning those lessons the hard way.

"If it can save even one family's children from that devastation, that's why I'm gonna do it," she said.

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