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By Paula Fitzsimmons

You made the decision to buy a puppy and have even found your potential new family member online. While plenty of reputable puppy breeders and rescues exist on (and off) the internet, puppy scammers are also rampant. And if you’re not careful, you can easily fall prey. Learn how to spot a puppy scam so you can take steps to protect yourself before making a commitment.

How Common Are Puppy Scams?

“At least once every year and a half, somebody calls to tell me they’ve been scammed,” says Merle Tucker, owner of Castle Creek Cavaliers in San Diego, California. “I just recently talked to somebody who was supposed to pick up a puppy from the airport. They had put down a deposit, but the person never brought the puppy.”

This experience is not uncommon. According to Katherine Hutt, national spokesperson for the Better Business Bureau (BBB), online scams were rated as the fourth riskiest scam in 2016; in 2017 they jumped to the top of the list.

Among the categories of online scams, pets rank as the riskiest, Hutt says. “58 percent of those exposed to the scam lose money. The dollar losses are high, too; people attempting to buy puppies, kittens, birds or exotic animals online have a median loss of 600 dollars.” 

How to Identify Puppy Scams

Go online and enter a phrase like “puppies for sale” (or “puppies for adoption”), and you’re bound to run into fake websites, says Hutt. “They are everywhere, and they change constantly, so it’s hard to keep track.” It’s easy to purchase a website and make it look legitimate, she says. “They often steal photos of cute puppies from the websites of legitimate breeders, rescue groups and other places. If you see the same image on more than one site, that is a good sign you are dealing with a scammer.”

When buying a puppy online, look for weekly updated pictures, recommends Renee Sigman, owner of Yesteryear Acres in central Ohio. “Check markings and collars to make sure they are the same puppies week to week.”

Another telltale sign that you’re dealing with a puppy scammer is that their puppies are offered at extremely low prices, says Todd Howard, owner of San Diego-based BigBulldogs.comRemember, you’re only buying a picture, because the dog does not exist.”

The way a breeder accepts cash is also telling. “If the seller does not accept credit cards, do not do business with them. Most unscrupulous sellers will ask you to send money via Western Union. If they do not send you a dog, you lose all your cash and have no recourse. If you pay by card, the credit card company offers insurance in your purchase,” says Howard.

How to Avoid Getting a New Puppy With Health Issues

Some breeders may inadvertently, or even knowingly, sell you a puppy with health problems. “Many Bulldogs become ill within the first two to five days of purchase because they notoriously have a weak immune system. Every week I get calls from some person who purchased a bulldog elsewhere,” says Howard.

When he asks why they’re contacting him instead of the breeder, he typically gets one of two responses: “The breeder won’t return my call,” or “The breeder said the dog was healthy when it left here, so it’s not their responsibility.” He says a sick Bulldog puppy can oftentimes cost the new pet parent up to 1000 dollars a day at the vet.

To avoid this scenario, Howard suggests working with a reputable breeder who has lots of experience with the breed you’re interested in and who offers a warranty for the puppy.

How to Recognize a Good Puppy Breeder

Unlike puppy scammers, a good breeder welcomes communication and will have a phone number listed on their website. “If a seller will only talk to you via text or email, you can guarantee that it’s a scam. Any good breeder who loves their puppies will want to meet you and/or speak to you directly. They will want to get to know the person they are entrusting the life of their baby Bully with,” says Howard.

Conversely, they will be open about how they conduct business. For example, Sigman posts a daily blog about her Goldendoodles and Labradoodles. “Each and every day, we write a post about what is happening here at Yesteryear Acres. We have been doing this daily for over eight years. This allows puppy buyers a chance to really get to know us and our puppies and our family. We share our daily life so that puppy families will be able to enjoy knowing where their puppy came from and how much love was put into the caring of their pup.”

How to Research Puppy Breeders

There are fortunately a number of ways to research breeders and rescues so that you can weed out potential puppy scams during your search for a new puppy. “You can google them, ask for references, ask any and all questions you need to feel comfortable. The AKC has a rescue network that includes over 450 rescues and is a good start for anyone looking to give a dog a much-needed home,” says Brandi Hunter, vice president of communications and public relations for New York City-based American Kennel Club (AKC).

Additionally, you can find information on a breeder’s practices on the BBB’s database, and sites like catalog pet-related scam websites.

Experts recommend searching locally when you’re ready to buy or adopt a puppy. “It’s always a good idea to go meet [your potential new puppy] in person and let your new companion choose you. This makes for a very pleasant life for both of you,” adds Howard.

Follow your instinct and walk away if something makes you feel uncomfortable. “If your gut tells you it’s a bad deal, listen to your gut,” says Howard.

Asking your veterinarian or finding a veterinarian who is willing to discuss the different breeds prior to purchase can be helpful. Also, veterinary clinics can make recommendations about reputable breeders and rescues that they have worked with in the past.

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