How to Spot a Puppy Scam

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: The COVID-19 pandemic made every part of life harder and worse. It made it feel unsafe to see friends, to travel, to leave the house for groceries. And many people, homebound like they hadn’t been for a long time, looked to a new four-legged friend for company. People applied to adopt or buy dogs in record numbers. Unfortunately, record numbers of people were tricked because they didn’t know how to spot a puppy scam. 

Pet-related scams more than doubled in 2020, according to the Better Business Bureau, as folks around the country scrambled to add a furry friend to their family. Scammers saw the desperation in folks who were in isolation, and they pounced; last November, the BBB received 337 complaints about pet scams, compared with just 77 in November of the previous year. 

Most of these incidents happen online, through a third-party seller like Craigslist or through a designated scamming website. Some sellers make their moves using cash transfer apps like Zelle and CashApp, others use fake online forms to steal your credit card information. Read on to find out how to spot a puppy scam, along with some steps you can take to avoid them.

Puppy Scam Red Flags 

There’s no way to know for sure that an online seller is playing you, but if you notice one or more of the below, it’s probably a scam.

The price is really, really good.

You know the old saying: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. When you see a seller offering pups for way less than other breeders, don’t trust it.

They’ve copy-pasted photos and text.

Seeing the same phrasing on multiple posts? Pictures of the same pup appearing across the internet? Don’t trust it. You can do a Google reverse image search to make sure the puppy pictures on a website are unique to that dog. 

They won’t do phone calls.

This is true for all kinds of different scams: Sellers typically stick to emails and text messages. It’s easier to hide their identification and avoid repercussions that way, thanks to proxy servers.

Things are moving too fast.

Reputable sellers will take the time to learn about you, your family, and your lifestyle to make sure your newest family member will be a good fit. Scammers, on the other hand, will try to get you to open your wallet as soon as possible.

Fees are stacking up.

If the seller asks you for additional payments for things like “reimbursable” pet insurance or special permits (especially if they’re related to COVID-19 restrictions), don’t trust it. There shouldn’t be additional fees for special regulations. 

Sketchy rates or refund policies.

Reputable breeders rely on just that: their reputation. If a puppy listing specifies that they don’t take refunds or offer warranties in the case of a health problem or complication, that’s a sign of a scam. 

How to Avoid a Puppy Scam

Now that you know some of the puppy scam red flags, here are a few steps you can take to help ensure your pup purchasing experience is a pawsitive one.

Do your research. 

You should know what the going rate is for the breed you want to buy—how else will you know if this price is fantastically low? You should feel completely comfortable asking a breeder for references and reviews from other buyers. 

Shop local.

Whenever possible, work with local, reputable organizations. It’s best if they have a space you can visit and puppies you can see and hold. Any time you buy a dog online, sight unseen, there’s a chance you could be dealing with a scammer. 

Ask questions.

If you can’t find someone locally, ask to do a video call—everyone knows how to Zoom now, right?—so you can see the seller and the pup for yourself. Then, you should feel comfortable asking all kinds of questions about the dog you hope to bring home. A trustworthy seller will be knowledgeable and capable when answering q’s about everything from breed traits to this litter’s lineage to their current medical information. 

Consider rescue. 

There are so many wonderful adoptable dogs out there who need a home—and the odds of getting scammed by a rescue group are close to zero. If you have to have a specific breed, check out a reputable breed rescue. (We have guides to breed-specific rescues in Minnesota, Washington, Illinois, and Colorado.) Check with other local adoption agencies as well, since more purebred dogs are finding their ways into shelters post COVID puppy boom. And pup course, remember: Mixed breed pups offer all the love with a little bit of ~mystery~ to boot. 

Be patient—and trust your gut.

Bringing home your new best friend isn’t usually as easy as clicking a link and plopping down a deposit; it takes time to find the right pup for you. Take your time, do your research, and trust your instincts if something feels even a little off. 

If you suspect you’re dealing with a scammer or have been the victim of a puppy scam, you can find more info on reporting fraud here.

Have other tips on how to spot a puppy scam? Share them in the comments below.

Featured photo: Sophia Kunkel

Sidewalk Dog’s mission is to help dog parents spend more time with their puppers by discovering and sharing activities they can do and places they can go—together! Sniff out our award-winning newsletter and Instagramthen check us out on Facebook and Twitter.

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