How to Avoid Puppy Scams When Adopting a Pet

auburn puppy with toy looking straight ahead

You've found the puppy of your dreams online through a breeder or rescue organization. When you go to the airport to wait for his delivery, however, you quickly realize there's no puppy waiting for you, and your money is long gone. Here's how to avoid getting scammed when adopting a dog.

The Basics of Puppy Scams

Puppy scams happen when someone poses as a seller and collects payment for a dog that does not exist or that they have no intention of selling. The fraudster may post fake ads and even go so far as to arrange a pickup, but never show up.

These scams are on the rise, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic brought a pet adoption frenzy. Of the online scams tracked by the Better Business Bureau, 35% in 2021 were pet scams. The average cost of these scams to aspiring pet owners was $1,088.

These scams can be heartbreaking to victims, but there are certain red flags you should be on the lookout for to avoid them. Signs of a possible scam include:

  • You find the "seller" through an e-commerce marketplace. Posts on Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace and other online selling sites are unlikely to be from legitimate breeders.
  • You're required to make a deposit before contact. If you're having a hard time getting the breeder on the phone or video chat without paying a deposit, they may be hiding something.
  • Puppies are available immediately. Experienced, responsible breeders often have a waitlist and may not breed every year. If you are able to find a rare or expensive breed immediately available, it may be a scam.
  • The cost seems too good to be true. If you find a dog listed for a significantly lower cost than similar listings, take this as a red flag.
  • Dogs must be shipped. If the only way to get a dog is via a shipment, stop. Reputable breeders do not put puppies on planes.
  • Photos of the animal seem illegitimate. You may notice that pictures passed along to you seem staged or overly professional. Use a reverse image search like Google Images or Tineye to see if the pictures have been stolen from another breeder or stock image site.
  • Payment is requested in gift cards. Gift cards are a popular payment method with scammers because they are hard to trace and easy for scam victims to buy and send. Avoid this payment method.

What to Do if You've Already Been Scammed

If you were scammed into paying for a dog you haven't received, there are concrete steps you can take to document the scam and hopefully recover some money.

Contact your state's consumer protection office and report the scammer to your local police.

File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) even if you don't think you have enough information to aid in an investigation. They may be able to use the information you provide to build a case or spot a trend in scams.

Depending on how you sent the money, it may be difficult to reclaim. Your payment method may have fraud documentation and resolution policies in place—or it may not. Here's what to keep in mind with various types of payment methods:

  • Payment apps: Payment apps may not be able to return your payment to a scammer, but they do have some general advice on how to move forward. Zelle, for example, will not assist with recovering funds. And with Venmo, a payment cannot be reversed without the recipient's explicit permission.
  • Credit card payment: Credit card issuers typically allow cardholders to request a chargeback if they were the victim of fraud.
  • Cash: Contact the Postal Inspection Service if you have mailed cash or money orders to a scammer—the sooner the better. The Inspection Service may be able to use tracking numbers to help in your fraud case. If they've already received your cash, your chances of getting it back are slim.
  • Wire transfer: You may be able to reverse a wire transfer if you contact the company you used to send it right away. Let them know the payment was fraudulent and request that they recover your money.
  • Gift cards: If you paid someone with a gift card, contact the company that issued the card right away. They may be able to cancel the card and give you a refund.

How to Protect Yourself From Scams

Getting scammed could happen to anyone, but there are things you can do to protect yourself.

  • Connect with legitimate sellers. It's important to make sure you connect with real sellers through official channels such as their website or phone number, not ads that may not be posted by the actual seller.
  • Get to know breeders or rescues. Breeders and rescues want to know the home their dog is going to as much as you should want to know about their breeding or rescue practices. Get familiar with one another (preferably in person) to get a sense of their legitimacy.
  • Don't pay upfront. Make it a policy to never pay for big purchases you haven't put your hands on.
  • Use credit cards for payments. When you do make payments for large items, try to use credit cards, which come with a whole host of fraud protections, such as the federal limit on liability for fraudulent purchases to only $50. Many card issuers even go beyond that requirement and don't hold you liable for fraudulent purchases at all.

The Bottom Line

Following basic safety practices and being vigilant of red flags can help keep you safe from scams, but mistakes can happen. If you're worried that a scammer might have accessed your information, free credit monitoring from Experian can alert you to credit activity that could be a sign of fraud or identity theft. Get additional peace of mind with Experian IdentityWorksSM, which provides identity theft and credit monitoring alerts.