Right now, ruthless puppy scammers are lurking online — hoping you’ll click on their websites, post or offer to help. Spotting signs of a puppy scam can save you from ending up heartbroken and broke. Scams include “dog breeders” who only accept bank or wire transfers or won’t have a live video call so you can see a puppy, her littermates and mother.
Dogster interviewed animal welfare insiders who revealed these criminals’ tricks and how to recognize a scam.
How to protect yourself from the top puppy scams
Before you put a deposit down on that puppy, do your research on the dog breed and on potential breeders. Know how much the puppy should cost, what the size standards are and the colors. Any puppy that seems too good to be true (cost below market value, special color or size outside the breed standard) probably is. Here’s a list of tips to protect yourself from puppy scams.
- Pay with a credit card.
- Find a reputable breeder by answering these questions: Does she belong to the national dog breed club or any other dog organization; does she hold any positions in any organization; do the dogs meet the breed standard; do people on the breed’s Facebook group page know her?
- Ask to review the contract.
- Check if the puppies in question are part of reported puppy scam lists on sites like PetScams.com, which lists the latest website scammers.
- Know the going rate for that type of puppy. If the cost is below that rate, it might be too good to be true.
- Does the puppy deviate from the breed standard in any way? Fad sizes or colors could indicate a scam or a dog breeder who breeds unhealthy pups.
- Google the name of the breeder and the company’s name. Look for reviews and comments from previous customers.
- Meet the puppy and the litter in person or have a live video chat.
- How are you to get the puppy? Many breeders ask that you pick the puppy up in person rather than shipping the puppy. If they want to ship the puppy, make sure they are not a puppy shipping scam (see below).
- Do a reverse image search of the puppy’s picture to ensure it is not a stock photo.
- Adopt from a shelter or rescue in person.
Types of puppy and lost dog scams
Not sure if it is scam? Dig into these top four puppy and dog scams to know what they look like.
- Online puppy scams
The online puppy scam is one of the most prevalent schemes on the internet. Fraudsters set up sharp-looking websites and pretend to be dog breeders offering adorable puppies for sale. They post pictures of popular breeds like French Bulldogs, Goldendoodles, Labradoodles and Dachshunds, banking you’ll fall in love with photos of the happy, fluffy pups. But the images are often stock photos or hijacked from other dog breeders’ websites.
“I have seen videos and pictures of my own puppies being advertised for sale, sometimes old videos of dogs that are now fully grown,” says Vivianne Hulsey, a preservation breeder who runs Vixbull French Bulldogs. “It’s insane and predatory.”
If you contact these so-called dog breeders, they’ll demand a deposit for the puppy, saying something like, “Send us cash now, or you’ll lose the pup. We have 10 people interested.” After you send money, they vanish. Since the “dog breeder” doesn’t accept credit cards, you may have fewer ways to dispute the charge and get your money back.
“Pets are a huge, huge business, and these people have figured it out,” says Madeline Bernstein, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Los Angeles and author of Designer Dogs: An Exposé. “These people are exploiting love and the human-animal bond.”
- Puppy shipping scams
Some puppy scammers take your deposit money and run. Others transition to the often-ugly shipping phase.
“They find out where you are based, then tell you they are at the opposite end of the country,” says Paul Brady, a cybersecurity consultant who started PetScams.com, which tracks puppy-swindling websites. “If you’re in California, they’re in New York. If you’re in New York, they’re in California — so they can charge you huge money for shipping.”
Then the “dog breeder” tells you there’s a transport problem (for a puppy who doesn’t exist), and things get expensive. Paul knows one person who lost $20,000.
“They’ll say, ‘The airport refused your puppy, and you need to pay for an air-conditioned box (crate),’” Paul says. “If you don’t pay, they will pile on the pressure saying, ‘The puppy will languish in an airport.’” Keep in mind, airlines don’t require temperature-controlled crates.
The scammers may say your puppy missed her flight and demand you pay them for another one. They insist on money for insurance, vaccines or medications.
Once they’ve bilked you, they may give you an actual flight number for your puppy. Some victims have gone to the airport to find no puppy, realize they’ve been scammed and leave crushed.
- Want ad, social media and Craigslist puppy scams
Money-sucking thieves also write social media posts and want ads with sad, fake stories.
“They say, ‘I have a rescue dog in need,’ or ‘I’m a missionary assigned to some foreign country. I have to rehome my dog quickly; he’s free,’” says Kathleen Summers, the director of outreach and research at the Stop Puppy Mills Campaign at the Humane Society of the United States.
When you respond, the person may tell you he needs money to get the dog to you, and it morphs into a shipping scam.
“Sadly, kind-hearted animal lovers are often reluctant to give up because they think the animal is in a bad situation,” Kathleen says. “It takes advantage of people who think they’re doing the right thing.”
Some ads are about real dogs up for sale by thieves, puppy mills and backyard breeders. “You get a sick dog, spend thousands on medical bills and the dog dies anyway,” says Madeline. “The seller becomes unreachable, and you’re stuck with the expenses. It’s pretty depressing.”
- Lost dog scams
Scammers also troll lost dog posts to dupe worried families.
“It’s devastating,” says Leslie Poole, the executive director of Pet FBI, a free database to list lost and found pets.
Fraudsters call the number on the post and pretend they have your pup. They request money to drive your dog to you or for medical expenses because she was injured. Overjoyed and relieved pooch parents send the money — of course, via a bank transfer, payment app or even gift cards.
“Then they never hear from the person again,” Leslie says. “It’s the worst. You need to get verification that they have your pet before you transfer any funds.”
Like the online puppy-seller scams — you can ask to do a live video chat with the person and your dog. Or find out exactly where they are and contact their local animal control agency or police.
Dog lovers who spotted puppy scams
Madison Nak from California connected with a website selling exactly what she wanted: a cream-colored French Bulldog.
“They’re like, ‘I’m gonna send you videos,’” Madison says. “It wasn’t FaceTime or Skype, but they did say something like, ‘Here are videos of the dogs in our yard this morning.’”
Madison was suspicious and asked them to write her name on a piece of paper, put it next to the puppy and send her the photo. That’s when she spotted it was a scheme. “They photoshopped the picture,” she says. “I never sent the money. Luckily, I didn’t get scammed.”
But Marsha M. from Kansas wasn’t as lucky.
She tried to buy a French Bulldog for her mother, who is battling cancer. “Her dog had just died,” Marsha says.
Marsha found a website offering darling puppies for a reasonable price. (Puppies priced below the usual going rate are a sign of a scam.) When she inquired, they asked a barrage of questions.
“What kind of house do you have? What kind of yard? They said they wanted to make sure their babies were going to the right home,” Marsha says.
Marsha sent an $850 deposit through a payment app. Then she discovered the same “dog breeder” had a dozen similar websites, each selling a different type of dog.
She emailed Petscams.com and it confirmed the site Marsha paid was on its scam list. Despite trying, she did not get her money back.
“I cannot believe people are so evil,” she says. “My mother ordered toys. She got food. I’m so upset.”
How do puppy scammers get away with it?
How do these scammers keep swindling dog lovers?
“Many scammers operate out of Africa with little fear of being caught or extradited to the United States to face criminal charges. The scammers know that,” Paul says.
Paul says the only way to stop the scams is to educate dog lovers to stop falling for them. “If you receive an email saying, ‘My son is a Nigerian prince, and we have 50 million dollars.’ You know it’s a scam,” Paul says.
Marsha says she was hesitant to talk about what happened to her, but she wants to warn others about the pain scammers cause.
“I was so embarrassed,” Marsha says. “But word needs to get out, even if I can help just one person.”
Spot a puppy scam quickly: look for a fake logo
Beware fake and stolen logos on puppy and dog scam websites.
Swindlers swipe the names and logos of legit organizations for credibility. If you have a lost dog, a scammer may email you claiming they’re with a real lost pet recovery service — but they’re not.
“They say, ‘I can find your pet, but I will need the fee upfront.’ That’s a red flag right there,” Leslie says.
Some scammers post the American Kennel Club (AKC) logo on their “puppies for sale” website. The AKC is a well-known registry of purebred and pedigree dogs.
“It’s a regular occurrence,” says Brandi Munden, vice president of public relations and communications for the AKC. “Our logo is easily found online. It’s not hard to download and slap it on a website, unfortunately.”
The AKC doesn’t license or certify breeders or dogs. The group registers dogs with the required lineage paperwork. If you have questions about AKC references on a website, email firstname.lastname@example.org and the AKC will help you separate fact from fiction.
“Dig and do your research,” Brandi says. “The scammers are messing with somebody’s emotional heartstrings, and that’s unfair.”