Shelter dog awaiting adoption.

Pet Adoption Scams: An Unexpected COVID-19 Symptom

The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has brought out the best in many Americans. Donations and volunteering are going strong and a rising number of pet lovers have opted to adopt and foster. Unfortunately, less scrupulous individuals are also mounting a crisis response. Fraudsters have stolen financial information, proffered misleading cures, and generally made efforts to capitalize on confusion and fear.

With the pandemic continuing into its third month, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has already identified more than 18,000 schemes that have bilked citizens out of nearly $13.5 million. Experts suggest that prospective pet parents are among the most vulnerable groups. Numerous states have seen new adoption scams emerge over the last few months.

Understanding Pet Adoption Scams

Pet adoption scams are nothing new. According to the Better Business Bureau (BBB), they’ve actually been on the rise for some time. In fact, they’re practically ubiquitous at this point. In a report on the subject, the organization writes, “experts believe at least 80% of the sponsored advertising links that appear in an internet search for pets may be fraudulent.” The BBB received 371 complaints last month, a big jump from 118 during April 2019. Over the years, their investigators have traced most of these scams back to Cameroon in West Africa.

Scammers often repurpose images, information, and even entire webpages from more reputable sites. They use these to establish a believable web presence and lure users. In almost every case, they do not actually own the animals they are offering. Many would-be victims confirm their suspicions by conducting reverse image searches.

It’s not always so easy to expose a fraud. Steve Baker, a BBB investigator from St. Louis, notes that fake advertisements and sites are often highly sophisticated. “These are professionals,” he writes, “These are organized guys.” Baker understands adoption scams better than just about anyone — he wrote the report quoted above.

Once they’ve established contact, pet adoption scammers are usually quick to begin discussing money. As conversations continue, they’ll become more urgent and “most will demand additional payments.” Generally, these payments are meant to cover “transportation expenses” like specialized crates, insurance, or shots. Successful scammers often grow greedier and greedier as time goes on. If payments stop, they may even threaten to press criminal charges for animal abandonment.

Many online scams target unsuspecting seniors who may lack the digital literacy to identify red flags. The BBB suggests that adoption scams are often noticeably different. While victims include everyone from children to grandparents, “studies have shown that an unusually high number of those targeted in the scheme are in their late teens or 20s.”

The current public health crisis has made it much easier for pet adoption scammers to operate and avoid detection. They have access to a larger-than-ever pool of potential victims who are eager to adopt and increasingly unlikely (or unable) to conduct the appropriate due diligence.

Warning Signs

Adoption scams are fairly consistent. Scammers tend to employ many of the same tactics and, fortunately, tend to give themselves away with many of the same warning signs. The American Kennel Club identifies a few especially common red flags:

Avoiding Adoption Scams

In addition to watching out for those red flags, the BBB contends that the single best way to avoid falling victim to adoption scams is to insist on a face-to-face meeting. Stay-at-home orders complicate things slightly, but it’s still possible for pet lovers to demand this level of security. Many shelters across the country are offering drive-through adoption services with no or limited-contact options.

The Bureau also advises against paying with money orders. Card users aren’t immune to scams, but they’ll have a much easier time disputing fraudulent charges and, ideally, receiving reimbursement. In general, however, pet lovers should avoid providing any form of payment until they’ve seen the animal themselves.

Is Adoption Right for You?

The COVID-19 crisis could be the perfect time to bring a new cat or dog into your home. They’ll appreciate being welcomed into the family, your local shelter will appreciate the helping hand, and everyone in your household will appreciate an exciting break from the monotony of stay-at-home orders. Take care, however, not to make a hasty decision. It’s more important than ever to not only conduct careful research, but to make sure you’re equipped for pet parenthood and capable of providing everything a dog or cat needs.