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Fraud in the sale of online pets is on the rise, with scammers victimizing American consumers at an alarming rate. In recent years, Americans have filed thousands of complaints with law enforcement, consumer organizations, and online websites. And while the victims' ages run the gamut, from the very young to senior citizens, studies have shown that an unusually high number of those targeted in the schemes are in their late teens or 20s.
The scheme usually depends on bogus, often sophisticated, advertisements to hook unsuspecting consumers. Incredibly, experts believe at least 80% of the sponsored advertising links that appear in an internet search for pets may be fraudulent.
Searching for a pet online without coming across a bogus website can be difficult.
This scheme appears predominantly centered in Cameroon in West Africa and is the subject of law enforcement and media reports across the U.S. and Canada. Several recent arrests demonstrate that thieves use Cameroonians residing in the U.S. to collect money from victims through Western Union and MoneyGram outlets.
It is not difficult to understand why the scheme is so pervasive in the U.S. – and so successful. Puppy ownership is prevalent, and the selection and purchase of a pet are viewed as the first step toward bringing a new, beloved member into the family. Pets offer companionship and comfort, and a new puppy or kitten can quickly become a center point in the life of its owner.
In the current digital age, it is no surprise that the first step in many people’s search for a new pet begins with the internet. Alas, even the most careful online examination will likely put a consumer in contact with a potential thief.
Reports show there are thousands of people around the country, and the world, who have become victims of pet scams. Many of these typically begin with a fake website and stolen photos, often taken from a legitimate site.
Greedy “sellers” rarely are satisfied with stealing a few hundred dollars from their victims. Most will demand additional payments until the buyer becomes suspicious or runs out of funds.
Simply put, many pets marketed online do not exist – at least not as advertised. In virtually all cases, the scammers never own the animals described on the sites.
While some scammers offer “free” pets, others sell animals at deeply discounted prices. Those paying for the pet are almost always asked to send money through Western Union or MoneyGram.
In nearly every fraud case, the thieves instruct the potential buyer that an animal must be shipped from a remote location. The fraudsters don’t make arrangements for an in-person meeting with a potential buyer and often ask victims to send money to a supposed third party who will take over responsibility for transporting the animal. In addition to creating fake websites to advertise the animals, the thieves similarly will develop bogus websites that appear to be legitimate transport companies.
Those who pay for pet shipping often are asked to buy or rent a special crate for the pet, and if they successfully obtain payment for that, they may follow up with requests for special insurance or shots for the animals. Sometimes, the thieves may claim the pet is stuck at an airport in transit, and additional money is needed for food and water. The requests for money on one pretext or another will continue as long as the victim sends money.
Eventually, most victims realize something is wrong and begin researching the internet for stories and alerts on pet fraud before ultimately realizing they have been duped.
At this point, the thief usually claims the pet is at the airport and threatens the potential buyer with criminal charges for "animal abandonment" unless more money is forthcoming.
John Goodwin, Senior Director of the Humane Society of the United States, says that while there is a criminal charge for animal abandonment, it would never be enforced, especially since no animal was ever shipped.
Potential victims can quickly become so emotionally invested in preparing for their new puppy that they are devastated on finally learning the animal does not exist.
BBB urges the public to be on guard against online pet scams, inspect an animal in person before paying money, and pay by credit card if you do not make an online purchase.
Also, potential buyers can often detect fraud by searching the pet's picture online. You may be dealing with a forgery if the same image appears on other sites.
This report attempts to examine the scope of this problem, who is behind it, the efforts of law enforcement to address the issue, and some tips for avoiding this fraud.
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