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Three Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppies in a glass bowl.

People love shopping online and — let’s face it — the internet has just about everything for sale, including both pet supplies and even the pets themselves. For this reason, when buying a puppy, it can be very tempting to simply peruse the internet to find the perfect canine companion to join your household. But before you fall in love with that doggy in the (browser) window, beware that up to 80 percent of websites advertising dogs for sale online are actually nothing more than puppy scams, according to a 2017 study by the Better Business Bureau (BBB).

As the popularity of online shopping grows, online scammers are finding creative ways to dupe consumers out of money — costing Americans up to 2.7 billion dollars alone in 2018, according to the FBI’s 2018 Internet Crime Report. Many times, those adorable little pups you see available to purchase may not actually exist or you could wind up with a very sick pooch, if one arrives at all. This can be heartbreaking for potential owners and financially devastating as well. Fortunately, there are red flags you can look for to help you spot a puppy scam when shopping for a canine companion online to avoid being taken advantage of.

Check the Information You Find Online

When perusing websites selling puppies online, always check to see if those websites contain information and photos of puppies that pop up elsewhere on the internet. One of the main ways fraudsters take advantage of people is by creating fake websites using text and photos gleaned from reputable breeder websites. Some scammers even create mirror images of breeder websites to draw in potential victims, warns CBS.

Use your browser’s “image search” option or image searching websites like TinEye to look up images of puppies presented on the website or sent to you by email or text. Also, search for the text presented on the puppy seller’s website to see if duplicate information exists elsewhere. If you find duplicate information, you’ve likely spotted a puppy scam.

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Beware of Puppies At Low Prices

If a deal on a puppy you find online appears to be too good to be true, it probably is. Most puppy scams include pricing for purebred dogs that is well below the average price for the breed. For this reason, research the pricing for the breed of dog you are looking for to determine the average cost. Additionally, if the breeder claims the puppy is registered with an organization like the AKC, contact the organization directly to confirm this, recommends Mike Bober, president and CEO of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council in Alexandria, VA.

Reputable breeders always work with a local veterinarian to provide proper care and vaccinations for the puppy, thus accounting for a higher purchase price. The breeder should allow and encourage you to speak with that vet. “By the time the animal is ready for a new home, we’ve already seen the pet once or twice and know how to discuss the breeder’s reputation, the bloodlines, personality, and health of the pet,” says Jim D. Carlson, DVM, owner and holistic veterinarian at Riverside Animal Clinic & Holistic Center in Chicago. “We serve as a trusted third party in the relationship with the prospective owner.”

Avoid Suspicious Payment Requests

When buying a puppy online, if a breeder asks you to pay for your new puppy via wire transfer, money order, or gift card, that’s a major red flag, warns Bober. Keep in mind that these payment methods work much the same as cash, giving you no recourse to get it back. In fact, the BBB recommends that you always use a credit card when buying a puppy online so that you have a way to recoup your money.

Many puppy scams also involve additional fees that pop up during the supposed “transit” of the pet to you, including fees for special shipping crates, exorbitant insurance costs, and surprise veterinary fees, warns the International Pet and Animal Transportation Association. Worse yet, once you stop sending funds if you suspect a scam is afoot, the fraudsters may threaten to report you for “animal abandonment,” even though no puppy was ever shipped, making this an empty threat. All fees should be discussed and paid with your breeder beforehand.

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Ask for Video or Face-to-Face Contact

Online scammers are typically located in foreign countries and don’t actually have the puppies they are selling online. Some puppy scammers even steal videos from reputable breeders’ websites or solicit these videos through email from real breeders while posing as potential buyers, warns Petscams.com, an online database of fraudulent pet-selling websites.

To avoid these potential puppy scams, speak to the online breeder on the phone or through a video chat app in real time. You’ll also want live videos of the puppy you are considering with a piece of paper next to them that has your full name and email address on it in every frame.

Ideally, you’ll want to meet with the breeder in person at their home to interact with their puppies and get an idea of the conditions they are being kept in. This will help ensure you will get a healthy, happy pup that, most importantly, actually exists. If the breeder refuses to meet, it’s likely a puppy scam.

Who is Affected by Puppy Scams?

According to the BBB, victims of puppy scams are primarily millennials in their 20s and 30s, although anyone can fall for this type of scam. Many scammers pull on our heartstrings with pictures of cuddly puppies that can be tempting for anyone.

Puppy scam artists are usually outside of the United States in countries like Cameroon, located in West Africa, so always be wary of money transfer requests to international locations or written communications that seem riddled with grammatical issues.

On average, victims of online puppy scams lost between $100 and $1,000, with some losing thousands of dollars, says the BBB. Data from the BBB Scam Tracker found that around 12.5 percent of all online shopping scam complaints from consumers pertained to the purchase of pets.

How to Safely Shop for a Puppy Online

Whether you’re buying a puppy online or in person, use the AKC Marketplace to find your ideal canine companion. This online service exclusively lists 100 percent AKC registerable puppies from AKC breeders. The AKC is the only registry in the United States that conducts thousands of kennel inspections a year to ensure the integrity of its registry and that proper care and conditions are maintained by the breeders using its registry.

You may also consider AKC PuppyVisor, a service that provides a one-on-one counselor and online support to help you find the best puppy for your needs.

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