How to avoid pet scams online
19th October, 2021
As with everything else, many people now source and buy their pets online. While it can increase your chances of getting the specific breed that you long for, you’re also putting yourself at the increased risk of being scammed.
That’s not to say that pet scammers only operate online, but the faceless nature of buying and selling pets over the internet makes it even easier for criminals to get away with it.
However, with a little research and knowledge of their tricks, you can ensure you don’t fall into their trap. At the end of the day, buying a pet should be an exciting experience, not one fraught with worry that you’re not going to see anything in return for your money.
In this article, we’ll provide you with the best advice on how to avoid pet scams. That way, you can put all your energy into preparing for your new arrival – buying beds, food bowls, pet insurance and so on – and concentrate on enjoying what should be a really happy and exciting time.
Pet scams surged during the pandemic
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic saw an increase in criminals preying on aspiring pet owners’ need for companionship.
Not everyone was lucky enough to have human company throughout lockdown, and many people bought a pet to fill the void. Even for otherwise busy households, a pet was what many felt they needed around the place to lift their spirits.
A whopping 3.2 million households in the UK welcomed a pet into their family during the pandemic, according to the Pet Food Manufacturers' Association.
But, as the demand for pets increased, so too did the amount of pet fraud.
Pet scams came in all kinds of different guises, from advertising pets that never existed to falsely claiming to have found lost pets and demanding cash from desperate owners.
Data from Action Fraud shows that £2.6m was lost by prospective pet owners in the 2020/21 financial year, an increase of over 20% compared to 2019/20.
Commenting on the rise, Pauline Smith, Director of Action Fraud, said: “Criminals have, and will continue to use, the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to scam unsuspecting victims.
“It’s important that if you’re considering purchasing a pet online, that you follow the advice of the Take Five to Stop Fraud campaign by taking a moment to stop and think – it could protect you and your money.”
What is the Take Five campaign?
The Take Five to Stop Fraud campaign is a good place to start for ensuring you don’t fall foul of a pet scam. While the advice is not specific to animal purchases, it’s designed to be straightforward enough to be able to apply to all types of preventable financial fraud.
The advice acknowledges that while most people are savvy enough to avoid being swindled on a regular basis, in the heat of the moment – when you really want what’s being sold – it’s easy to get caught out.
It also recognises that for most people, trusting their fellow human beings is instinctive. However, we unfortunately live in a world where not everyone is quite as they seem.
So, what are the three main things you can do to prevent being a victim of a scam?
STOP – Force yourself to take a minute before parting with whatever the person or company is requesting from you – that might be data or money. In that minute, you might want to have a look online to see if there are any reviews or comments relating to the transaction you’re about to make.
CHALLENGE – One of criminals’ best tricks is to rush or panic you into making a decision – perhaps giving you the impression that if you don’t act immediately, you will lose out. However, the reality is often different, and it’s fine to reject, refuse or ignore any requests.
PROTECT – If you think you’ve fallen for a scam, try not to panic. Instead, pick up the phone to your bank and then report the incident to Action Fraud. Unfortunately, if you have parted with money, only for the fraudsters to go back on their word, there’s a chance you will never see it again. But you might find some comfort in knowing you’ve done your bit to protect other people from falling for the same trick.
Navigating the minefield of buying a pet
With research suggesting that there are thousands of fake pet and shipping websites waiting to scam potential pet owners, it can feel like a bit of a minefield trying to buy that cat or dog which will complete your life.
However, once you know what to look out for, you can start to feel more confident about spending hundreds or even thousands of pounds on a pet online.
Did you know, for example, that the UK’s most expensive dog is the English Bulldog, with pups selling for an average of £2,995.
It’s not just the English Bulldog which will set you back a pretty penny. Other in-demand breeds include the Cavapoo (a cross between the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and a Poodle) and the Miniature Dachshund, both of which come with an average price tag in excess of £2,500.
If you’re shelling out that kind of money on a pet, you’ll definitely want to protect your investment with some specialist pet insurance. You also want to know you’re getting a healthy dog in the first place, and not just being scammed into thinking you are.
The hook and the sting
Scams tend to take place in two stages: a hook and a sting. In the first stage, fraudsters will go out of their way to build trust with unsuspecting buyers. They have probably devised a carefully written script in which they might promise things like pet wellbeing items and after-sale documentation.
Then they will ‘reassure’ you with some pictures and videos of the pets they claim to have – but these will have been stolen from legitimate breeders. It’s all about quickly convincing you of their authenticity at this point, hoping that you will hastily put down a sizable deposit, which will, of course, be non-refundable.
Having already taken some of your money, the scammers are not done there. They will now move onto the second stage of their fraud: the sting.
You might be led to believe that a third party, a pet shipping company, requires fees in order to ensure the safe delivery of your cat or dog. If you end up paying once, don’t be surprised if the scammers come back looking for more.
The most common request is for victims to pay for a “temperature controlled” cargo crate – but planes already have pressure and climate control in their cargo areas, so you see straight through this kind of reasoning.
Fraudsters will create all kinds of scenarios to extort more money from their victims – it’s even been known for them to make up even fictitious plane crashes as part of their scams.
Don’t be ‘dogfished’
Another scam you need to be aware of is ‘dogfishing’. If you’ve not heard of this term before, the Dogs Trust defines it as to “mislead someone into buying a dog which may not be what it seems.”.
In dogfishing scams, prospective pet owners are mis-sold illegally imported puppies, when they believe they are getting a healthy, happy puppy bred in the UK.
As the Dogs Trusts points out, due to their breeding, these dogs often have serious health conditions or lifelong behavioural challenges, and some don't survive for very long, leaving their buyers out of pocket – but worse than that, heartbroken by the experience.
In 2020, the charity launched a new campaign called ‘Don’t Be Dogfished’. Along with the campaign, it conducted a survey to see how dog lovers have been conned or dogfished.
The results, while worrying, provide some things to look out for to avoid being a victim of dogfishing. Here’s what the survey revealed:
Over half (51%) of the 2,000 dog buyers were not given an opportunity to see the puppy they were buying more than once while over two fifths (43%) were prevented from seeing the puppy with their mum.
Almost a fifth (19%) of buyers were told it would not be possible to see the dog at the seller’s home. Instead, they were asked to collect their puppy in a car park or layby.
One in eight (13%) buyers said their seller either outright lied to them about the dog or withheld some information, a figure which rose to over a fifth (21%) among those who bought via online adverts. The mis-truths included details such as the age, breed and medical history of the dog.
Over a quarter (26%) said they were seeing signs of worrying health or behaviour issues just a few weeks after taking ownership of their new puppy.
One in six respondents said that their puppy had developed significant health or behaviour problems, such as diarrhoea and anxiety, within the first 12 months. This led to the pet owners having to stump up around £500, on average, in additional vet bills. Unfortunately, some of the pet buyers reported that their puppy had died or had to be put to sleep, due to the seriousness of their condition.
It really does make for upsetting reading. However, the only way that things are going to change is if pet buyers take the right action – ideally, avoiding being scammed altogether. But, if they do find themselves a victim of fraud, to report the incident to the relevant authority.
Over half of those polled (55%) agreed that puppy smuggling is a big issue in the UK, but more than a quarter said they were unaware they should consult their local Trading Standards if they believe their puppy was smuggled.
The Don’t Be Dogfished campaign has three top tips for those looking to buy a new puppy:
Make a point of insisting that you see the puppy and mum together at their home – if the seller is reputable, this won’t be an issue; even allowing multiple visits.
Ask plenty of questions and inspect all the vital paperwork – such as a puppy contract – carefully, looking for information about the dog’s parents, breed, health, diet, and more.
If anything raises suspicion or doubt, walk away from the sale and report the seller. This might not be easy to do, but it’s for the best.
For more guidance around what questions to ask when buying a puppy, and what to look for when meeting them for the first time, check out our guide on how to buy a puppy responsibly.
Pet insurance for precious pets
Buying a new pet and making them part of the family should be an incredible feeling. But you need to have your wits about you from the moment you decide your home is in need of a four-legged friend.
Having successfully avoided a pet scam, your next challenge is to find some comprehensive cat or dog insurance. Unfortunately, unexpected accidents or illnesses can happen, and there’s no telling when, so it’s best to have pet insurance in place from day one.
Whether it’s something minor or something more serious, treatment for your new companion can soon get expensive. That’s why having the right pet insurance cover in place is the only way to protect yourself from the financial worry this could bring.
With 15 levels of lifetime cover, the specialist team at Purely Pets has designed a range of policies suitable for every pet owner. Our policies include cover for vets’ fees ranging from £1,000 to £15,000.
As well as our award-winning policies and low excess from as little as £60, you also have access to an online policy management portal so you can manage your cover at a time that suits you.
Plus, if your pet goes missing our insurance can help to cover the costs of advertising and reward so you can be reunited as soon as possible.
Policy benefits, features and discounts offered may very between insurance schemes or cover selected and are subject to underwriting criteria. Information contained within this article is accurate at the time of publishing but may be subject to change.
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