Beware: The Puppy Scam

Tonya Boyer | December 13, 2023

Good news: the ASPCA says pets do make good gifts – as long as the person you’re buying for wants and can care for a pet. But if you’re searching for a pet to give to a loved one this holiday season, there’s one thing you should be on the lookout for: puppy scams.

The Puppy Scam

Despite the name, puppy scams aren’t limited to dogs. “Puppy scam” is an umbrella term that encompasses a specific scam setup involving any type of pet. We’ve seen this type of scam with cats, dogs, and even exotic birds!

Here’s how it works:

  • A bad actor poses as a breeder or pet merchant by setting up a website, marketplace store or social media account advertising cheap pets. They post cute pictures (frequently stock images) and canned descriptions of the pets they wish to sell.
  • A legitimate buyer may see the site or account and contact the “breeder” to inquire about a pet.
  • The “breeder” gives limited information about the pet – just enough to keep the buyer interested. They may add urgency to the situation by claiming the pet is in danger in its current location and must be purchased immediately to save it.
  • The buyer sends money to the “breeder.”
  • The “breeder” ghosts the buyer. Buyer messages will be ignored or deleted. The “breeder” may even delete their website or account (though you can be sure they’ll have a new one soon). No pets ever change hands because the bad actor never had any pets in their possession. The scam is complete.

This type of scam can have an emotional and financial toll on its victims. Not only have they paid out money to a scammer, but they also must face the heartbreaking truth that the pet they tried to buy doesn’t even exist. Luckily, there are some tell-tale red flags on puppy scams that can help you keep clear of them.

Legitimate Seller

Most legitimate breeders focus on one breed.

Legitimate sellers will have an active social media presence. Their websites will be established.

Information about the pets for sale will be detailed and personal to each animal. Legitimate sellers will want to give enough information to ensure a good fit between buyer and pet.

Also, when clicking on individual puppies you will tend to get very detailed information rather than popups asking for the user’s info.

The cost of purebred puppies will be hundreds or thousands of dollars. The same is true for high-end cat breeds.

Puppy Scam

Puppy scammers will have many different breeds.

Puppy scammers will have newer social media accounts with limited activity. Their websites will be new.

Information about pets for sale will be limited. There may be a “read more” cutaway link, but it may redirect you to the home page or give a popup asking for your information.

Puppy scammers rely heavily on stock photos of cute pets. They care less about a good fit with the buyer than about drawing in more victims with cute pictures.

Scammers claim to sell puppies and other animals at prices too good to be true – some under $100 or even free with shipping. But as the scam progresses, other costs and fees may arise as scammers try to get as much money as possible from their victims.

If you do go searching for a new pet this holiday season, you should keep these tips in mind:

  • Look for something local – or be willing to travel. Many puppy scams revolve around pets being shipped to the buyer. You should meet a pet in person before buying.
  • Interview the seller carefully. Scammers are usually unwilling to meet in person or talk on the phone. The American Kennel Club (AKC) has a list of questions you should ask a breeder before purchasing, and legitimate breeders will be willing to answer these.
  • Take your time. Scammers will want to rush you, but legitimate sellers will know this is a big decision. If a seller is unwilling to wait for you to be sure about your purchase, they could be a scammer.
  • Keep in mind that scammers do not care about the pets they’re selling (because the pets aren’t real). Only buy from a breeder or seller that you can tell cares for their pets. We’d recommend checking out your local humane society or pet shelter or working through the AKC’s Marketplace.
puppy scam

If you own a marketplace business, you could be at risk for puppy scams and other fraudulent activity. IP Services has more than 15 years of experience helping clients with fraud prevention. You can reach out with questions or schedule a consultation with our fraud team here.

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Tonya Boyer

Tonya has been with IP Services since 2014. After several years serving as a Subject Matter Expert in the cloud computing space, she began managing the Fraud Protection team in 2017. She believes in creating a happy, casual but professional workspace where everyone can live their best lives while doing good work. She is dedicated to community outreach and helps coordinate the IPS Connects volunteer and donation committee.