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Given the increased number of individuals staying at home to do their part and slow the spread of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), many are turning to the internet to adopt or purchase a furry companion. Unfortunately, the Michigan Department of Attorney General has seen a surge in complaints of internet scammers exploiting this situation. Several Michiganders have recently been tricked into paying for pets that do not exist. Due to these thieves often being outside the United States, the prospects of getting money back are extremely low.
Scammers are using this pandemic as an excuse to refuse in-person visits or to demand additional fees, including fees for shipment in special “protective” crates, for pandemic insurance, or for a COVID-19 vaccine or medication—none of which exist. Such methods are in addition to the typical scam practices of advertising puppies that do not exist or demanding exorbitant fees once the purchase price is paid, such as fees for shipping or health-related issues.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel previously issued a consumer alert to provide tips to help consumers spot and avoid puppy scams. However, given the recent uptick in puppy-scam complaints, AG Nessel wants to remind consumers that they must be hyper-vigilant when attempting to purchase a puppy online. Use the following tips to avoid being scammed:
- Remember this: Regardless of how a puppy is sold – via breeder, pet store, or online – always be on alert for deceptive practices.
- Research the breed. Look up information about the breed you intend to purchase. Take the time to understand ideal breeding conditions, common health issues, and their average selling price. After taking the time to know the breed and you find a puppy being sold at a significantly discounted and uncommon price, it is likely a scam.
- Research the breeder. Conduct a thorough internet search of the breeder from whom you intend to purchase the puppy. You should also search the email address that is advertised on the breeder’s website or that the breeder uses to contact you, as scammers often use the same email address across multiple websites. Finally, if the breeder’s website contains testimonials, conduct an internet search of the text of the testimonial. If the same or similar text appears on other websites, the breeder is likely a scammer.
- Research the puppy. If the breeder claims to have registered the puppy with an organization, such as the American Kennel Club, contact the organization to confirm. If the breeder’s website contains a photo of the puppy, perform an internet search of the image to determine whether it has been used on other sites. If the image appears on other sites, the advertisement is likely a scam.
- Do not purchase a puppy sight-unseen. If possible and while embracing safe social distancing, visit the breeder and puppy in person. If you are unable to do so, request that the breeder video chat with you or send you a photo or video with your name and the date written on a piece of paper next to the puppy. Be sure to do this before making any sort of deposit. In addition, request to see the premises and the mother. Avoid breeders who offer to meet you at a “convenient” public location and will not allow you to see where the animals are kept.
- Arrange safe transport of the puppy. Keep in mind that shipping any young animal long distances, especially as air cargo in the hot summer months, carries a great deal of risk. Picking up the puppy in person and flying back with them under the passenger seat in a carrier is strongly recommended. Some common transportation-related scam tactics used by internet sellers to get more money from a consumer include:
- “Crate didn’t meet airline standards, so you need to pay for a different one.”
- “Puppy needs medical attention, so you’ll have to pay for the services before transport.”
- “Too warm/cold, we need to buy special devices to keep the pet comfortable during transport.”
- “Date doesn’t work with the airline; need you to pay a reservation change fee.”
- Use a credit card to make the purchase. Avoid wiring money, sending gift cards, or sending money using apps such as Venmo, Zelle or CashApp, as such transactions cannot be refunded and are not traceable. Use a credit card to the extent possible, which will allow you to dispute a purchase.
- Retain all documents and communications from the breeder. In the event you must document fraud, be sure to retain all records of the sale, including:
- Information about the breeder, such as screenshots of the website
- Original advertisement
- All written communications with the breeder
- Proof of any funds you sent to the breeder
- Any contracts or financing agreements
- Breeder’s refund policy
- Any health guarantees, health certificates, or proof of veterinary exams and vaccinations
- Registration information, if the seller claims the animal is registerable
- Any photos or videos you receive.
- Avoid pet stores. Almost all pet store puppies come from puppy mills, but the stores pretend they are boutiques with purebreds or “designer” mixed breeds. Michigan is one of the top states for the number of complaints received about puppies purchased from pet stores. When buying a puppy from a pet store, look for:
- Stores that do not have appropriate paperwork identifying a puppy’s breeder, and when asked, only have information on the dealer (dealers have license numbers with a B in the middle, instead of an A; for example, 43-B-1234).
- Stores that sell puppies that have been shipped from breeders hundreds of miles away, often in bad transport conditions, or stores that offer to sell an underage puppy (under eight weeks old).
- Deceptive signage or language used in the store to make buyers think puppies are from small, humane breeders such as: “no puppy mills, registered, designer, or hypoallergenic breeds.”
- Consider contacting your local shelter. Most shelters are looking for adopters or fosters to prevent overcrowding and to relieve stress on the animals. Many animals at the shelter are immediately available for adoption. Shelters also may be able to offer references to reputable local rescues or breeders. Visit the Humane Society of the United States’ website for more information on finding a puppy, how to find a responsible breeder, how to recognize shady pet store practices, and to obtain additional fact sheets and resources.
To report a scam, file a complaint or get additional information, contact the Michigan Department of Attorney General:
Consumer Protection Division
P.O. Box 30213
Lansing, MI 48909
Toll free: 877-765-8388
Online complaint form
Complaints with an international connection will be referred to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
You can also report a puppy scam to:
- The Better Business Bureau
- The Humane Society of the United States
- The FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center