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Online Puppy Scams Skyrocket As Pandemic-Isolated People Search For Pets To Adopt

LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) — People feeling lonely and isolated at home due to the ongoing pandemic are increasingly becoming victims of online puppy scams, according to the Los Angeles City Attorney and the Better Business Bureau.

With so many people and families unable to gather with loved ones, there's been a huge increase in pet adoptions. And scammers are having a field day preying on people searching for a pet to add to their families as the pandemic drags on.

However, the Better Business Bureau says online puppy scams are up 500% this year, and consumers are expected to lose more than $3 million.

"Fraudsters are trolling the internet, looking for hopeful pet owners, so knowing the red flags can help consumers avoid heartache and losing their money," Steve McFarland, president and CEO of the BBB in Los Angeles and Silicon Valley, said in a statement. "The latest tactic is telling would-be pet owners that due to social distancing restrictions they cannot meet the animals before sending money."

The Coppola family was scammed this year after they decided to buy a puppy for their daughter, Molly, during the pandemic.

"So we were finally like 'let's bite the bullet and start looking around,' even though we were nervous about it," said mom Amanda.

Once they decided on a pug, they Googled around to find a breeder and came upon a site called Farmland Pugs. Within days of contacting the breeder, Amanda was told that a puppy was headed their way. She was asked to send $850 via Zelle.

On the morning the dog was supposed to arrive, Amanda said the shipping company contacted her, demanding a $1,200 deposit for a temperature controlled crate, $980 for travel insurance, and $880 for a change of ownership. They said the dog would be stuck at the facility and the family could be charged with animal cruelty if they didn't comply.

The dog never arrived, and the website was soon taken down. The Coppola's were scammed out of more than $4,000.

"Because we sent the money via Zelle, there really wasn't anything we could do to get the money back, so the thing we were concerned about was making sure this doesn't happen to anyone else because it felt like such a violation to us," Amanda said.

In a video released Thursday, LA City Attorney Mike Feuer said that scammers lure people in with sponsored ads in online searches, 80% of which are believed to be fraudulent. Custom websites and ads for the puppies convince people on social media and Craigslist of their legitimacy, and scammers interact with people by email, text or in phone calls to convince them they have a pet to sell.

Feuer said that people can protect themselves by watching out for red flags, like being being unable to see live video of the dog, or only being able to see the puppy on a video call after paying a deposit. The method of payment requested is also an indication of whether the transaction is legitimate – scammers almost always request funds through Moneygram, Western Union, with prepaid debit cards, through the Zelle app, with bitcoin, or with other methods that make it hard to recover money.

"Remember, once you're emotionally invested, you're much easier to scam," Feuer said in the video.

The average puppy scam loss is about $750. Scammers have also been busy advertising kittens, exotic birds and horses for adoption.

To avoid becoming a victim, Feuer recommended people do an image search of the puppy to see if it comes up in other ads or on other websites; search the text in the ad to see if it appears elsewhere verbatim; check to see if the seller is a registered breeder; and search the name of the website alongside the words "complaint" or scam."

Instead of trying to buy a pet from a possibly suspect source online, Feuer urged would-be pet owners to adopt from an animal shelter, like LA Animal Services.

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