Raquel and her teenage son looked at the online photos and settled on Duke, an adorable Cavalier King Charles spaniel puppy wearing a red bow tie with white polka dots.
“He was really excited about getting a puppy,” Raquel said of her son. “We’re kind of housebound now with the COVID-19 and figured we’d bring a little bit of joy, a little excitement to the house.”
The online breeder agreed to sell Duke for $600, plus $150 to ship the dog to Raquel in Cleveland. It was a big discount from the $1,500 or more local breeders told Raquel they charge for spaniel puppies. Wary of dealing with someone online, she pressed the breeder for photos and video of the dog, and verified his phone number had an Oklahoma area code, as he’d claimed.
She sent the money last Saturday. The next day, her family went to a pet store to buy supplies, and that’s when she received the email that made her realize she was being scammed.
“They said that they were having shipping issues, and because of the COVID-19, the dogs required a special thermal crate in order to ship them,” said Raquel, who asked not to use her full name in order to protect her family’s privacy.
They said the shipping company wanted $1,500 for the crate. Raquel refused to pay. Soon the breeder cut off contact and has not refunded her $750.
Online pet scammers have been ripping off consumers for years, but business is booming thanks to the pandemic. Police in the UK and Canada, as well as the Better Business Bureau, recently issued warnings that pet scammers are exploiting the coronavirus. “The kittens and pups are advertised for sale online but scammers state potential buyers are unable to see them in person due to the coronavirus outbreak,” said an alert issued Tuesday by West Midlands Police.
“You have a new huge market of people that are being scammed. People who would never buy a pet unseen now have a reason for doing that,” Paul Brady, who runs petscams.com, told BuzzFeed News.
Brady said a victim told him they paid more than $800 to “quarantine” a puppy that never arrived.
Traffic to his site has exploded over the past month, and Google Trends data also shows a sharp increase in searches for “buy a puppy” worldwide since March 22:
Some of those searches will lead people to scams, according to a 2019 Better Business Bureau report. Sue McConnell, president of the BBB chapter in Cleveland, told BuzzFeed News that housebound people who google for pets are sitting ducks.
“People are stuck at home, and it’s a good time to get a pet and train a pet. So they’re going online, looking for animals, and running across the puppy scam sites,” she said.
Raquel filed a complaint with the Cleveland BBB about kingcharlesempire.com, the online breeder she says ripped her off. She said she called the breeder after receiving the email advising her of the $1,500 crate charge.
“I asked him if this is something he did all the time, why he was not aware of these extra crates that were supposedly needed to ship the puppy?” she said. “He started to get a little irritated with me. And I told him I wasn't going to be sending him additional funds.”
That was the last she heard from him.
BuzzFeed News called the number for kingcharlesempire.com and spoke to a man who identified himself as John. He claimed to know nothing about Raquel, the shipping costs, or her puppy never arriving. He hung up when told there were online complaints about his company ripping people off. The person who answered the phone at the shipping company Raquel dealt with, unitedpettransport.com, initially said shipping a dog costs $200. He hung up when asked about the thermal crate cost.
Brady said pet scammers make most of their money from additional fees charged after a customer pays the initial deposit. “Buying a pet is an emotional purchase, so once you have that initial deposit made you can make up all sorts of rubbish,” he said.
Raquel said her son is sad about losing out on Duke. “He's been really looking forward to getting a puppy. He's an animal-lover, so for him it was really disappointing,” she said.
“It was really disappointing to know that there are people out there who take advantage of pretty much any situation,” she added.