Puppy scams snare lonely hearts amid COVID-19

Lonely Aussies looking for companionship amid coronavirus social distancing restrictions are sadly being targeted by scammers, as puppies that don’t really exist are being advertised for sale.

Delia Rickard, deputy chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) issued a warning to people looking to bring home a new puppy: be careful.

“A lot of people are stuck at home and going online to buy a pet to help them get through the loneliness of social isolation,” Ms Rickard said.

“Unfortunately, the rush to get a new pet and the unusual circumstances of COVID-19 makes it harder to work out what’s real or a scam.”

The number of puppy scams reported to the ACCC’s Scamwatch has soared during the coronavirus lockdowns. During April, these scams were almost five times higher than average.

Scammers have ripped off close to $300,000 from unsuspecting puppy buyers so far in 2020. That is almost the same as was lost during the whole of 2019, when Aussies lost a total of $360,000.

So far in 2020, more than 2,000 Australians have reported losses in excess of $700,000 to COVID-19 related scams, meaning that Puppy scams equate to almost half of all money lost to scams taking advantage of the global pandemic.

What to look out for

According to the ACCC, most of the scams use fake websites or fake advertisements on social media and online classifieds pretending to sell puppies.

Crucially, scammers take advantage of long distances that make it impossible to travel to meet the puppy. They will generally demand up-front payments via money transfer to pay for the puppy as well as shipping costs to deliver him or her to your home.

Ms Rickard told the ABC that the majority of puppy scam victims live in Victoria, who have collectively lost $115,000. NSW is next, with losses coming to $98,000. Meanwhile South Australians were least likely to fall victim to puppy scams.

Most people also use email to liaise with the fake breeder or puppy seller.

“Once you have paid the initial deposit, the scammer will find new ways to ask for more money,” Ms Rickard warned.

“Scammers are now using the COVID-19 pandemic to claim higher transportation costs to get across closed interstate borders or additional fees for ‘coronavirus treatments’. 

“Unfortunately once you make the payments, the seller will cease all contact.”

Scammers have favourite breeds too

The ACCC said that of the scams reported so far in 2020, two particular breeds stand out as the most commonly used by scammers.

They are Cavoodles (a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel/Poodle cross) and French Bulldogs. But other breeds can also be used by scammers.

How to avoid puppy scammers

Ms Rickard said that there are ways to avoid falling victim to scammers when you’re looking for a new puppy.

“The safest option is to only buy or adopt a pet you can meet in person and if you cannot do that during the current lockdown restrictions, consider putting the search on hold,” she said.

“Scam websites can look quite convincing, so try not to fall for the adorable puppy pictures they post,

“And remember, if the price looks too good to be true, it probably is.”

Ms Rickard also suggested you do your homework on the seller before handing over any money.

“Research the seller by running an internet search using the exact wording in the ad and do a reverse image search for pictures of the specific puppy, as you’re likely to be dealing with a scammer if you find matching images or text on multiple websites,” she said.

“If you are in doubt, seek advice from a reputable breeders association, vet or local pet shop.”

What to do if you have been scammed

Anyone who has lost money to these or similar scams should contact their bank as soon as possible to report the fraud, Ms Rickard said.

In some cases, it may be possible for the bank to halt or reverse the payment.

You should also report the incident to the ACCC’s Scamwatch or your state/territory Fair Trading body, to help authorities in their fight against scammers.