How Do Pet Adoption Scams Work and How Can You Prevent Them?

Lyndon Seitz
Writer
Dolores Bernal
Editor
January 25, 2024

Looking for a new furry friend or an addition to the family? That’s great, and I hope you find joy in the search and eventually find a companion you’ll love for years to come.

However, there are dangers and potential problems during the search process. On top of making sure you’re getting your future pet from a reputation adoption agency or breeder, there are scams and fake listings to worry about, looking to profit from your kind hopes.

It can be a problem, but not if you know how to spot a scam and prevent it from affecting you. Here’s the information you need.

What Is a Pet Adoption Scam?

Cute dogs behind fence waiting to be adopted

Image by Freepik

It is a mostly straightforward but loathsome scam in which a scammer will offer an animal for sale or adoption that does not exist, collecting money for it in the process. After a while, or when found out, they will vanish, keeping the money in the process.

There may be variations in how the scammer reaches out to people or the listings they use, but it’s as simple as that. You’re promised a pet, you pay money, and then you don’t get a pet.

The Growth of Pet Adoption Scams

The pandemic left many understandably lonely, wondering if they could adopt or buy a pet. They did, to the point where during the pandemic, many, if not most, animal shelters were practically empty (and that’s great).

However, it also led to the rise of scammers creating fake listings online to take advantage of this trend.

Typically it happens the most with dogs, as some breeds can be expensive, and scammers can get more money from their targets. Yet any expensive pet can be used.

How Do Pet Adoption Scams Work?

There will be variations of this and different levels of involvement from the scammer depending on how much they think they can get, but they usually work by the following steps:

  1. A scammer will create a listing online of a pet for adoption or sale, either on social media, a site specializing in pet or ad listings, or through a website of their own creation (this is rarer). The pet either doesn’t exist, with the pictures being stolen, or there is no intention to give up the pet.

  2. The scammer will wait for requests to come in and then charge an adoption fee or for the sale of the animal.
    • Alternatively, they may charge an application fee, then simply reject or never get back to all applicants.
    • During the “application” process, scammers may also try to collect information on their targets for later identity theft purposes. Remember that your information can be as valuable as your money to criminals.

  3. After collecting the money, the scammer does nothing except vanish.
    • They may try to delay the process as much as possible while collecting more money from the victim.

Signs of a Pet Adoption Scam

Pet adoption scams can vary depending on the type of pet, sites or postings used, and more, but there are some clear signs and red flags to watch out for:

  1. You see a purebred or otherwise expensive-to-buy or adopt pet being offered for free or at a ridiculous discount. It’s likely meant to grab your attention and is an unlikely possibility.
    • If you don’t know how much a purebred animal goes for or what an adoption fee should be, you can easily look up the information online from reliable sites.

  2. The listing or offer will only accept wire transfers, cash, cryptocurrency, or other hard-to-reverse forms of payment. They won’t take credit cards or checks.

  3. You aren’t allowed to see the pet before adoption or paying.

  4. The pet is located out of the country. This reduces your options for recourse if you get scammed.

  5. It looks as though there could be constant delays when it comes to the delivery of your future pet, or you cannot pick them up yourself.
    • A related sign is that the animal must be shipped, and you cannot meet the breeder/agency in person.

  6. On any listings or websites, the writing is poor, there are frequent misspellings, and it seems poorly put together. Try to judge it by the same standards as a professional car or job listing.

Stolen and Unhealthy Animals

Woman playing with rescue dogs at shelter

Image by Freepik

While not the same as the pet adoption scams you see more often, you can fall victim to a bait and switch from an unethical dealer.

Always ensure you can inspect an animal before bringing it home, lest you do something like bring a steroid-bloated ferret into your home instead of a toy poodle. 

Similarly, you will want to ensure they’re healthy before paying and bringing them home. Bringing home an animal that’s been through a lot is one thing and an admirable one. Taking home an unhealthy animal when you are unprepared for it is another.

What to Do if the Seller/Agency Is Far Away?

Many would be willing to travel across the country or get their new friend from hundreds of miles away (even in a different country) if they found the right match. And this is a regular practice, with long-distance adoptions being an option.

I recommend against the practice. I completely recommend adopting from outside the country in all cases. However, there are ways to help ensure you’re not getting scammed in such a circumstance:

  1. Be extra careful about payment. Only pay via credit card if possible. Don’t go through with it if they don’t take credit cards or use a service such as PayPal that would have chargeback and fraud protection options.

  2. You may not be able to visit your future pet before it comes to your home. However, there is no reason you shouldn’t be able to have a video call with them and the breeder/shelter.
    • This way, you’ll be able to check on their living conditions and how they were raised and build confidence that they are legit.

  3. When searching in the first place, look for well-known and established shelters. There should be plenty about them online, not an online presence that a scammer could set up in an afternoon.
    • While unfair to newer shelters, more established shelters are less likely to be scams. You can’t get away with a scam for too long if you’re too big.

  4. Ask for documents and ask questions. Does the animal have any health or immunization records? What is their adoption process?

Tips to Prevent Falling Victim to a Pet Adoption Scam

  1. While you can let emotions flow when you see a potential new furry friend, try to think clearly about the adoption process and who you’d be working with through the adoption.
    • If someone seems suspicious or there is evidence of laziness or corner-cutting, look elsewhere. You probably don’t want to support them even if they aren’t technically a scammer.

  2. Try to adopt locally. It will be easier for you, less trying and stressful for the animal, and easier to confirm that things are what they seem.
    • Similarly, try to visit the animal beforehand, if not check if they’re a scammer to know better if they’ll be a good fit for you. Doing so on the premises they’re kept is best, if possible.
    • A breeder, rescue, adoption agency, etc. should be happy you’re showing interest in how they do things and how the dogs are treated.

  3. Review listings carefully. You may instead want to use trusted adoption sites when looking for your new pet. They are typically much more secure and have measures to help prevent scammers.
    • Things can happen, and people can change their minds, but becoming a victim of bad timing and unfortunate circumstances differs from getting scammed.

  4. Ask for pictures of the animal in question if you want to be cautious, with some way of getting information on the day’s date.

  5. Take your time. Anyone who tries to rush you through this process is not to be trusted.

  6. Remember that scammers aim to manipulate you. They will use practically every emotional manipulation tactic they know, and some they don’t, to get you to part with your money.
    • They will try to make you desperate and feel like you’re hurting animals for not falling for it. They will try to sound like good people themselves. You must see through this and stay the course when searching for your next pet.

  7. Don’t pay too much money upfront. Sometimes, a small deposit might be standard to reserve a spot for adoption or purchase, but paying in full ahead of time is not recommended.
    • Try to use a credit card when paying. That way, getting your money back is easier if it turns out the transaction was part of a scam. The federal limit for fraud liability is $50, but most credit cards go lower.

What to Do If Caught in a Pet Adoption Scam?

You might be reading this article because you are a victim of a pet adoption scam and are wondering what to do next and how to get your money back.

You aren’t helpless here. There are steps to take and things you can do. I can’t guarantee you’ll get your money back, but you will be able to improve your situation by following the steps below:

1. Understand the Scam and Create a Timeline

Unlike other types of scams, pet adoption scams work mostly uniformly but try to get together a clear timeline of events with as much evidence as possible. What did the scammer promise, and when? For how much money did you get scammed, and when and where was the money sent?

You’ll be glad you have the information when you report the crime to the necessary parties. 

However, don’t put yourself in danger or at risk of getting scammed further in the name of getting information. It’s not worth it, and you likely have enough evidence. Leave such collections to the professionals. This means that I don’t recommend contacting the scammer further (though make a note of the contact information they gave you).

2. Report the Scam

  1. Let others know about the scam, especially if the listing was locally based. A website that allows scams is not one you want fellow pet lovers going on unaware.

  2. If the listing was placed on a board such as Craigslist or on social media (something like Facebook Marketplace), report the listing as fraud there. You can usually find instructions on how to do so on each site.

  3. The FTC is interested in fraud and scams, and pet adoption scams certainly qualify.
    • They may not respond individually to your case but will track trends and take action from there. 

  4. You should report the scam to the local police. They might have encountered the scam before, and your information can help others. They might also be able to help you. An official report will help you in later steps and processes as well.
    • You can do this by going to your local station or calling your local police’s non-emergency number.

  5. This will go into step three, but you will want to contact your credit card provider or bank (whatever is applicable) and explain what happened.

  6. Other organizations possibly relevant to your case may track scams, such as the BBB or AARP. Report to them as your judgment dictates.

3. Try to Get Charges Reversed

You can get charges reversed or your money back, depending on how you paid. You can likely order a chargeback if you use a credit card, as recommended. Credit cards have fraud protection built in for a reason (dealing with scams).

Call customer service for the appropriate account, explain the situation, and see what happens. It will be worth the attempts.

You can also pursue legal action if you know the scammer’s identity (not an alias) and want to pursue it that far. Just try not to get your hopes up too much in the case of pet adoption scams. Depending on how much you were scammed for, legal fees would be more than what you would get back, and authorities might be unable to help.

4. Protect Your Money, Accounts, and Identity

You’ll want to ensure no more money gets to the scammer. If the scammer tried to use a payment plan, get yourself out of it by issuing a chargeback or simply stopping payments. Ensure they have no access to your accounts to withdraw money or further ability to charge you.

Speaking of accounts, while account breaches are rarely a goal for pet adoption scams, any information you gave up in the fake adoption process might be used against you. Take this time as an opportunity to secure your accounts, set up extra security measures, and consider.

In some cases, with pet adoption scams, identity theft is a risk on top of losing money. Pet adoption forms can contain personal information requests; some scams might ask for more than required. Watch out for other charges in the future, and I recommend getting an identity theft protection service such as Aura to watch your accounts and credit for you.

5. Refocus Your Efforts

It can be difficult to want to continue searching for a new companion after getting scammed like this, and I understand. Having your trust and enthusiasm betrayed in this way can hurt. 

However, try not to be discouraged for too long. Plenty of real animals would love to have a place in your home, and there is no shortage of ethical breeders and adoption agencies that you can work with, even if you have to wait a little while.

Try to understand what happened when you got scammed to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Put in place habits and protections that will help you. 

Yet after this, it’s time to get back to it. It might feel like the search can take longer, but the time, money, and patience will be worth it. 

Conclusion

Pets are an emotional topic, and the prospect of getting a new pet can put people in spirits that make them more susceptible to scams. Yet you can protect yourself during the process and ensure things are done right.

Before or after dealing with a pet adoption scam, teach yourself about the proper pet adoption procedures, learn where reputable shelters and breeders are in your area, and protect your accounts and identity. 

This can be done through good cybersecurity practices and by using services such as Aura to protect your accounts and identity.

Keep searching, and soon you or your loved one will find that perfect pet, safely and scam-free.

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