Puppy scams increase amid COVID-19 pandemic

Investigations

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically increased the demand for pets as people seek a way to ease loneliness, but with the demand for more puppies, there has been a spike in pet scams as people search online for a new dog.

The price of a yellow lab out of Houston, Texas was about a third of what a reputable breeder would charge, and a lot of other goodies were thrown into an online ad that peeked the interest of a young Knoxville woman.

Sharnai Lewallen-Wright and her children enjoy their new rescue puppy, Milo. The family recently picked up the playful 6-month-old, just weeks after seeing online, a yellow labrador retriever, and Sharnai contacted the breeder. She said she found a website called cuddlylabradors.com.

“I found a puppy on there that was 8 weeks old, her name was Daphne, she was cute. So I messaged the company to see information about adopting her. It says Daphne is purebred and very well tempered.”

All the correspondence with the breeder from Texas came through email messages. Sharnai said that she looked like she would fit in with the family, and decided to get more information.

“I found out that she was 500 dollars. Which was about 300 to 500 dollars less than what you find on most breeding sites. They said they would cover the airplane fares for her, they had a voucher for puppies traveling I was going to get her transportation fees at no cost.”

However, she had to act fast to take advantage of the free flight for the pup. The breeder told her they had one last free shipping coupon. They also told her that they had applied for AKC registration but when Sharnai asked for more detailed information there was silence.

“They wouldn’t respond in regards to the vet references. We also asked about the parents, we didn’t get any information on them either. So, I tried calling the company. When I called, I repeatedly received a voice-mail system that sounded like a robot.”

The breeder didn’t want a credit card or money card for payment, but something faster and safer, Sharnai was told. They wanted it through Zelle, which Sharnai says is like CashApp or Venmo. Zelle and Cash App are fast and free ways to send and receive money with the people you know and trust. But Tony Binkley at the Better Business Bureau says those payment systems have become popular for scammers to use.

“Typically they’ve used gift cards and things like that. Now they’re going to Cash App or Zelle where the money is getting transferred instantly right from your bank to their bank through an App. And, it’s gone. When you send it via Cash App, it is gone out of your bank account. You are not going to get it back,” said Binkley.

Because Sharnai wasn’t comfortable with the form of payment and lack of information, the deal was off. Recently, the IP address for the Labrador website was changed, adding to her suspicion. Puppy scams have spiked over the last few years. In 2017, the BBB received nearly 900 reported cases. Two years later, in 2019, the numbers had doubled to nearly 1,900. A year later, in 2020, the number of puppy scams doubled again to near 4,000.

“I think it’s success. The scammers are being successful. Then when COVID came along it made it even more possible because people wanted something for comfort because they couldn’t leave the house,” Binkley said.

Rather than going to a breeder, Sharnai decided to go ahead and find a rescue pup. “There are a lot of dogs that need homes in the area. Find a local shelter and adopt,” Sharnai said.

While puppies remain the most common bait in a pet scam. Twelve percent of pet scam complaints to the BBB are about kittens or cats. The Federal Trade Commission reports its data shows that scams involving kittens have more than doubled since 2017. Whether it’s a kitty or a puppy, the best advice is to buy local and make sure you see the animal before making any payment.

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