A Phoenix-area couple is out $2,500 thanks to a scam based on free puppy ads. Here's what happened to them and how to keep it from happening to you.
Shaun Johnson and Hilary Hirsh saw a classified ad for a bulldog that desperately needed a new home. The dog would be free, they were told, but the person who had the dog needed $150 to pay for the dog to be shipped to Arizona. Johnson and Hirsh wired the money. The couple was told the dog would be shipped via Jetpets airlines, and upon finding a legitimate site for Jetpets, the couple thought they were safe and their dog would be too. Then came the request for a $1200 deposit which would be refunded upon the dog’s arrival. Done. Then the dog needed vaccines, which was another few hundred dollars. Finally, the dog arrived in Arizona but could not be released because he was sick. Another $700 was requested for treatment so their dog could be released.
Total: $2,500 for a “free” dog.
When Johnson and Hirsh turned to 3 On Your Side, a local news investigation team, the airline said they see this scam all the time. Jetpets is indeed a legitimate business, and scam artists use their name to gain credibility for themselves. Then, they scam unsuspecting animal lovers who just want to give an animal a home. Just like they did to Shaun Johnson and Hilary Hirsh.
This story is not unique. It happens across the country all the time. To protect yourself, get familiar with these common red flags and how to avoid them.
Red Flag: Invisible Dogs
DON’T: Agree to adopt or buy a dog you haven’t seen in person. Scam artists and unscrupulous breeders hope and pray you won’t want to see the dog. They can hide unhealthy conditions and animals easily, leading to surprise illnesses and vet bills like the $2500 paid by the couple in the story above. Some savvy scammers don’t even have the dogs they’re offering – simply photos that capture your heart and make you susceptible to their scheme.
DO: Insist on visiting the dog before making any decision. This lets you know the dog is not just a story and will give you a better feel for the dog’s health. If the person you’re getting the dog from really cares about the animal, they’ll want to meet you too. Read more: 8 questions to ask the stranger giving you their dog.
Red Flag: Classified Ads
DON’T: Search classified ads for pets. Under current legislation, the USDA regulates the welfare of dogs for sale except those advertised online. This means that sites like Craigslist and eBay Classifieds are a playground for irresponsible breeders who are out for the money and not the care of innocent animals. So long as there’s a market, they’ll keep breeding carelessly and scamming innocent people. (The USDA is currently working on new legislation to close this loophole and better protect animals.)
DO: Find a reputable rescue to give a homeless dog its forever home. Petfinder.com is a fantastic resource to find adoptable dogs of all ages and breeds. If you prefer to buy a dog from a breeder, ask for referrals from someone you trust (a qualified dog trainer, breed club, or friend who has had a good experience).
Red Flag: "Free"
DON’T: Trust anyone who promises “free” then asks for payment. Con artists have been using this trick for years. They promise "free" to hook their victim, then ask for a small fee that is supposedly going somewhere else. That small fee is usually a test to see if you’re the right target. If you send that small amount, you’re pretty much guaranteed the scammer will have a larger request next. It’s been seen in a wide range of scams, not just free puppy ads.
DO: Back out if something doesn’t sound right to you, if you're being pressured for money, or if the amounts keep getting higher.
Red Flag: Western Union
DON’T: Send someone money via Western Union or similar wire services. Western Union is very difficult to track, so it’s a favorite for scam artists. Same goes for cash only, requests for them to send you a money order to use as payment for a third-party (the money order will bounce, leaving you responsible for the money), and any payment method that doesn’t give you a way to track it.
DO: Ask if they’ll accept an alternate method of payment. In some circumstances, there’s a legitimate cost that’s been agreed to by both parties. You should be able to pay with a method that makes you comfortable. If the person you’re dealing with will only accept Western Union, rethink the agreement. Honest people have nothing to fear from presenting their ID at a bank to cash a check.
Not everyone offering a free dog is a crook. Too many scam artists use free puppy ads to find their targets, however, so you can't be too careful. Look for the 4 red flags above, trust your gut, and you should be fine.
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Photo credit: Rev Stan