The brown-and-white boxer puppy named "Gemma" couldn't have been any cuter. Super lovable, 12 weeks old and he looked very intelligent in his picture. But before the day was done, he would end up ripping one big hole into a Michigan woman's checkbook.
And break her heart.
Those big eyes can con you into doing anything — and don't the scammers know it. It's a warning worth sharing once again during the holiday season, as many people shop online for puppies and other pets.
As it so happens, the online seller amazingly has a litter of puppies available in time for Christmas. The trouble is you're likely never going to see that dog — and you'll be out a crateful of cash.
How one online puppy scam unfolded
"I've been looking for a boxer puppy. And I've been going online," said Joan Reddout, of Vassar, Michigan, which is about 15 miles away from Frankenmuth.
She started looking in Michigan but the breeders she found here were selling show-quality purebred boxers and they were asking anywhere from $1,800 to $3,000 for their puppies.
"I can't afford that," said Reddout, 72, a former home health aide who hasn't worked in the past year after a car accident and issues with her immune system.
"I just wanted a boxer puppy."
Then in early October, she spotted someone selling boxers, known for their short, shiny coats and playful personalities, out of Billings, Montana. The puppies were American Kennel Club registered but they weren't show line dogs with four-digit price tags. The puppies were socialized and raised with children.
The distance didn't bother her.
"I had talked to people who had gotten puppies from out of state and they did fine," she said.
When Reddout called the number listed, the seller just happened to have some puppies being shipped out later that day. If she could get him the money right away, "Gemma" soon could be flown to Saginaw, the nearest airport, and then be delivered to her home. She could have the puppy at her home that very night.
One of the email exchanges described the boxer, saying: "He's attentive, lovable & gives kisses."
The puppy was $600 and the shipping fee would be $155 — total $755.
The send-money-now pitch didn't bother her.
The seller seemed sincere. He had shown interest in how she'd be able to take care of the dog. Did she have experience with dogs? Would she be able to walk the dog? How was the neighborhood?
Reddout admitted that she usually likes to go see a puppy in person. When dogs are sold online and being sent from another state, it's often not possible. She would wait until she met the puppy and saw a bit of his personality to pick a new name for "Gemma."
Everything seemed OK to the retiree who once raised boxers herself many years ago.
She has two older dogs, a Pekingese named Precious and a papillon named Tater. But she wanted a puppy with a larger presence to join the family. She divorced six years ago and has two adult children in New York.
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Seller asks for money via Zelle, gift cards
Even so, the online seller was pushing to close that deal quickly.
"He didn't want me to send a check. He had to have the money right away so he could pay for the puppy's flight and everything," Reddout said. Some emailed itineraries indicated flights on United Airlines and Delta.
The so-called seller initially asked her to send money via the Zelle app but she didn't know how that worked. He suggested she buy Visa gift cards. She ended up going to the Dollar General to buy two Visa cards — one with $500 on it and the other with $255 on it.
She was asked to take a picture of the Visa cards, the front and the back, and then a picture of the receipt. And she emailed those photos to the seller.
"He didn't want me to put his name on the back," she said. "His name was Frank Thomas, at least that's what he told me his name was."
The man had a heavy accent, though, and she wondered if he was originally from India and then changed his name.
She spotted real trouble when someone else involved in the scam alerted her that a special, thermal electronic crate would be needed due to weather conditions. And she'd have to pay $799 upfront — and later get $700 refunded once the crate was returned.
"I said, 'I'm sorry. I don't have that kind of money,' " she told me. "I said, 'I can come up with the $99 but the other $700 I can't come up with.' It took me a year to save up for the puppy to begin with."
Later, they asked her to just pay an extra $500. But Reddout couldn't do that either.
"He said, 'Can't you put it on your credit card?' " she recalled. "I said, 'No, I'm on a limited income.' "
She never did get the dog. She's out the $755. She was promised by the man who called himself Frank Thomas that she could get $600 back. He needed that $155 to cover upfront shipping costs. Whatever. She cannot get a hold of him and hasn't seen a dime of anything.
And she hasn't been able to tell her friends or relatives the story of the scam, the first time anyone ripped her off. She's too afraid that they'll think it was her fault for sending money and not spotting the fraud.
Puppy scams tap into need for affection
Puppy scams are huge. And frankly, it's one scam where I easily could imagine myself as a victim. We lost our dear corgi Phoenix Tiger, who would have turned 14 in January, back in October. As my son Matt wrote so eloquently, Phoenix "loved people. He touched the hearts of everyone he met. ... He was my best friend on my worst days."
Phoenix saw Matt through grade school, middle school, high school, college, grad school and his first job working, which happened for a few months to be out of our house during the pandemic.
Phoenix was an amazingly smart dog who helped me cook, including heading out to find me in another room when the oven buzzer went off. "Think we should get that?" he'd ask. He had a flair for wearing bow ties, showing kindness to small children and knowing how to work the room. (Longtime readers might recall the column I wrote in 2014 about when Phoenix chewed up some cash left on my son's bed when he rushed off to a high school football game.)
Our family loved him dearly. The three of us shared his final moments at an emergency hospital in Novi. And I felt compelled to turn to my son before we had to put the corgi down and to say: "Matt, you know I love you more than the dog." And Matt, wisely said: "Mom, there's no need to lie right now."
So I can only imagine how the scammers hit us where it hurts.
Not surprisingly, the crooks advertise breeds that are popular and promise a great price. Consumer watchdogs saw a major uptick in pet scam complaints during the pandemic, as people sought companionship and rationalized that they had more time alone at home to train a puppy.
The Michigan Department of Attorney General has received a total of 129 pet scam complaints since 2020.
A consumer in Commerce Township reported losing $700 via Cash App trying to buy a Siberian kitten online. But then a shipping company wanted an extra $1,500 for a special crate and the consumer knew that didn't sound right at all. The consumer reported to the Michigan Department of Attorney General that the family had gotten their hopes up but then everything fell apart and they felt heartbroken. They never received a refund or the kitten.
A Rochester Hills resident lost $650 in American Express gift cards trying to buy Astro the pit bull. The consumer was told not to tell the clerk at the store that the gift cards were being bought to pay for a dog because "they would charge me more for the gift cards." The next morning, another $970 refundable payment was requested but the consumer did not pay it, suspecting fraud, according to information from the Attorney General's Office.
Pet scams made up 35% of reports about online shopping scams made to the Better Business Bureau in 2021. The largest group of victims by age are those 25-35, followed by those 35-44. The average financial loss reported to BBB Scam Tracker was $1,088, according to a December 2021 BBB report.
Google took legal action in April against an operation using Gmail accounts and Google Voice accounts to impersonate sellers of basset hounds and Maltipoo puppies. One victim, according to the court filing in the San Jose Northern District Court of California, lost $700 in electronic gift cards and never got the puppy. (As part of that scam, the delivery company suddenly needed an extra $1,500.) AARP had tipped Google off to the scam, reportedly run out of Cameroon.
How one woman lost $925 on a flying squirrel
And it's not just puppies.
"We've had every animal under the sun that someone has tried to procure as a pet be victimized," said AARP fraud expert Amy Nofziger.
"Not a day goes by that we don't get a report on some sort of pet scam."
Consumers have complained of being scammed buying puppies, kittens, monkeys, parrots, raccoons, iguanas and horses.
"We had a flying squirrel two weeks ago," Nofziger said.
A flying squirrel?
The woman had two flying squirrels as pets but the female had died and she worried that the surviving male squirrel would get lonely. The problem is that she found the female on an exotic pets website, which was an imposter site managed by scammers.
She needed to put down a $200 deposit. She asked to use PayPal but she was told that she needed to use the Zelle app, Nofziger said, noting that peer-to-peer apps are increasingly popular with scammers who want instant cash.
Ultimately, more expenses needed to be covered — the scammers in these pet scams don't ask for all that money upfront — and the woman ended up spending a total of $925. Then, the scammers wanted an additional $1,000 in shipping charges. She said no at that point.
Many times, Nofziger said, extra charges can sound reasonable to a potential pet owner — fees to test for COVID-19, fees for a special certificate for the airlines, fees for a special crate. But it's a way for scammers to get more money.
Nofziger speculated that some shoppers are going online now looking for more unusual pets, such as raccoons, with the hope of finding the next TikTok star. And the scammers know it. (The social media angle for racoons seems more likely than trying to re-create the roaring 1920s when Rebecca the raccoon was a presidential pet. "She was given to the Coolidge family in 1926 by a supporter from Mississippi, who suggested that the raccoon be served up for Thanksgiving dinner," according to White House history.)
The scammers try to make you feel that you've got a connection already with the pet in the photo.
As part of her research, Nofziger exchanged texts with a cat scammer in February to see their ploy. The scammers immediately sent her pictures. "Of course, he's the cutest cat you've ever seen." And the scammers used what Nofziger calls "emotionally affirming language." The cat is described as being "so sweet." The scammer texts her that the cat already loves you. And the scammer says "nannys" — yes, misspelled — would be there to take care of the cat until he reaches your home. The scammer wanted $700 in cryptocurrency for the "baby."
"They use that language to get you hooked in," Nofziger said.
Nofziger told me she's amazed at how well-versed the scammers are about the traits of a very specific breed or animal. The scammers do their homework to know everything about that type of cat or dog to manipulate you into believing that you're talking with a professional breeder — and build up your dream of finding a loving pet.
Those puppy dog eyes will trick you
The deal might look real because the con artists will send pictures — and even videos — and then ask for a down payment, said Lauren Schalk, a spokeswoman for the Better Business Bureau Serving Eastern Michigan.
The BBB's "12 Scams of Christmas" includes pet scams, noting that many families will consider "adding a furry friend to their household this year." But it's best to request seeing a puppy or other pet in person before handing over any gift cards, payments via a banking app or bitcoin.
The thing is that the dogs in the photos aren't really sitting around the house hounding the scammers to take them on a walk or toss them another peanut butter pretzel. Con artists just steal cute pictures of dogs and other pets from the internet. Crooks only need a domain name — not the actual dog — to engage in fraud.
It's kind of like those romance scams. That hunk of a doctor in the photo isn't the real guy texting you.
And like the love connection who is overseas and cannot go to dinner, the adorable puppy is out of state and cannot jump on your lap.
It's terribly cruel to target someone who wants a companion. Maybe, they even lost a loved one or a beloved pet. For those who are honest, it can be hard to imagine that someone would steal an attractive photo to toy with someone's emotions. But it happens, way too often.
Earlier this year, consumers were warned about scams that even involved adopting puppies from war-torn Ukraine.
How to spot a scam
How do you protect your wallet — and your heart?
Unfortunately, it's best to be skeptical of any photo that you see online. Fake listings can appear on Craigslist or Facebook. Some scammers even try to pretend to be reputable breeders by stealing personal information from the breeders, according to an alert from the American Kennel Club.
A reputable breeder is going to make time to talk with you on the phone, not just insist on texting or emailing, said Brandi Hunter Munden, the AKC’s vice president for public relations and communications.
Talk with a few breeders to get an idea of the cost of a puppy for particular breed. "If the price is too good to be true, it usually is," Munden said. The AKC Marketplace is one spot to find breeders. The AKC does not certify breeders.
When it comes to getting a healthy puppy, Munden said, any reputable breeder will have had the puppy examined and already have begun their vaccination cycle. Ask for paperwork. "If the breeder does not have vet records on the dog, you should reconsider purchasing the dog," Munden said.
Follow up with your own vet and finish the vaccination cycle to ensure your puppy is fully protected. She adds that the puppy should not be around any unvaccinated dogs until they’re fully vaccinated at approximately 16 to 18 weeks old.
Seeing the puppy in person is key. It's usually, Munden said, in the best interest of the puppy for the new owner to go and pick up the puppy.
The Michigan Department of Attorney General says if you are unable to see a dog in person, see if the breeder is willing to do video chat. Or even "send you a photo or video with your name and the date written on a piece of paper next to the puppy. Be sure to do this before making any sort of deposit."
Don't pay all the money upfront until you meet the pet.
Know that customer testimonials can be fake, just like the pictures. If you spot the same text — or photo — on other websites, you might conclude that the breeder is likely a scammer.
PetScams.com tracks some scams.
Consumers can file complaints about scams to the AARP Fraud Watch Network Help Line at 877-908-3360 weekdays from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Eastern.
Some red flags of puppy scams are similar to other scams: Sellers create a sense of urgency to buy now; they want payments in odd forms, like gift cards, bitcoin or Zelle; and they're not really answering your questions. Never use Zelle or a money transfer service from your bank to buy a puppy. Try to use a credit card whenever possible.
Once you buy gift cards or send money via Zelle, the crooks will soon come up with other reasons for you to send more cash. Many of the puppy scams of late include last-minute, unexpected added medical or transportation costs, which only put more money in the pockets of the scammers.
Fortunately, Reddout, the Michigan retiree, didn't lose another $799 in gift cards for that thermal crate. It didn't make sense why the person delivering "Gemma" couldn't just take that crate back without her making a big, unexpected payment upfront.
"I realized it was a scam when he wanted the $799 to ship the dog," Reddout said.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Holiday shoppers warned that puppy scams can spoil your Christmas