I tried to buy a puppy online – and nearly fell foul of a 'dogfishing' scam

·7 min read
Jess Spiring dog
Jess Spiring dog

We only wanted a border collie. Not a fancy, rare-as-hens-teeth ‘doodle’ cross breed. Not a Lady Gaga-inspired French bulldog. Just a common-or-garden sheepdog who’d fit our family’s new lifestyle on a former fruit farm in Surrey.

And so in December last year my husband Reuben and I started scrolling night after night through thousands of postings on the eBay of pet sales, Pets4Homes. The site has become so popular that even the Queen reportedly bought a £2,650 corgi from it a few weeks ago.

We soon learned two important lessons. Firstly, dither and you’ll lose out, with most litters sold within hours. The only way around this was for Reuben and I to tag-team hourly searches to stay up to date with the newest collie listings.

The second, more depressing lesson was that with puppy prices doubling during lockdown, the market has become a wild west of cyber criminals and puppy farmers, so we’d need our wits about us.

Take, for example, the breeder who included a handful of adorable collie puppy pictures alongside a picture of the puppies’ mother. Something didn’t feel right to Reuben. “I’ve seen that dog’s picture before,” he told me and within minutes proved the point with a totally unrelated breeder using the exact picture as the ‘mum’ for their litter.

It’s how puppy farmers evade detection, we learned, stealing other people’s pictures to give the impression that they’ve bred from a beloved family pet when in fact the puppies have been illegally farmed and their real mother is long gone.

Some even go so far as to include “fake families” in their online descriptions to add a sheen of respectability to con increasingly sceptical buyers.

In other cases, the criminals have no puppies to sell at all; they simply hook buyers with cute pictures, ask for a deposit, then disappear with your money.

Our suspicions were roused with one breeder who appeared to have a beautiful looking litter nearby. His post disappeared from the site within minutes, then the same puppy pictures showed up again hours later with a different username. I could see from my list of ‘favourite breeders’ that the first user had been banned by Pets4Homes. I emailed their complaints department to report this user but never heard back.

The closest we came to being scammed was when we found a listing featuring a tri-coloured male – the specific colour and gender we were looking for. I called the breeder to set up a Facetime to see the puppies, fully expecting her to want to know a lot about us too.

But, no she told me, we couldn’t Facetime because her phone was too old and when I started to tell her about our farm, she cut me off, impatiently setting up a time to collect the puppy the next day.

It raised red flags, but having missed out on litter after litter, we were willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.

Reuben drove to Southampton the next morning while I waited with my daughters, Matilda (11) and Bibi (9) at home.

An hour later he called us from the car. “There’s no male,” he told me. “And they are all black and white.”

There was an adult dog at the flat, but Reuben’s gut told him it wasn’t the mum and he wasn’t even sure the pups matched the ones we’d seen online. Unwilling to line the pockets of a potential puppy farmer, he returned home empty handed.

Finally, we found Boo. Her owner had bought her from a farm in Shropshire the week before, but as her five-year-old pug was bullying Boo relentlessly, they were reluctantly re-homing her.

This time, Lauren, Boo’s then owner insisted on a Facetime with us and grilled us on the kind of life she’d have.

She showed us Boo’s original Pets4Homes post and with her distinctive tri-coloured markings we could readily confirm this puppy’s provenance. “You have to be so careful,” Lauren told us. “Last year we went to pick up a puppy we’d paid for, only to turn up on the doorstep of a very confused woman who said we were the second family that day to come looking for non-existent puppies.” They lost £1,300 to the scammers.

Happily, Boo was everything she seemed and we’ve stayed in touch with Lauren to update her on her progress. But as for my plan for a second pup to grow up alongside her, now we’re out of lockdown I’ll be doing my research offline, visiting a few breeders in person to be sure I can dodge the dogfishing gangs.

Tips to avoid ‘puppy-fishing’, from Dogs Trust

Always ask to see puppy and mum together at their home and make sure to visit more than once, even if it is via video call due to coronavirus restrictions. Never pay a deposit up front without seeing the puppy in person. Ask lots of questions and make sure you see all vital paperwork, such as a puppy contract – which gives lots of information about their parents, breed, health, diet, the puppy’s experiences and more. If you have any doubts or feel pressured to buy, as hard as it may be, walk away and report the seller to actionfraud.police.uk.

What Pets4Homes say about online scams and customer safeguarding

“As the UK's largest platform of its type, helping 2,500 pets find loving homes each day and with 7 million monthly online visitors, throughout the 15 years of its existence, Pets4Homes has prioritised animal welfare above all else and is committed to ensuring the safe rehoming of animals. At present, only 0.4 per cent of pet rehomings require a subsequent discussion with our Trust & Safety team, and only a proportion of these are concerns which warrant further action. However, one disappointed pet owner (or would-be pet owner) is one too many.

“Like any online platform that connects buyers with sellers, Pets4Homes' primary role is to facilitate initial contact, but we go above and beyond legal requirements when it comes to connecting pet lovers to those with animals in need of homes: enforcing strict listing rules, offering an in-platform ‘report’ function, as well as a 24-hour Trust & Safety Task Force dedicated to resolving concerns.

“Our Trust & Safety team reviews every advert that is listed, with approximately 40 per cent of all adverts being blocked during the pre-publication approval process, due to being in contravention of platform guidelines or for raising concerns in terms of content and the motivations of their creators. In addition to the manual review of listings, we have a number of automatic fraud detection tools in place centered around ensuring that no user on the site can be anonymous.

“Apart from our Trust & Safety team and our safeguarding tools, the vigilance of our community plays a crucial part in highlighting sellers that should be investigated and potentially removed from the platform. Our team investigates every report that is submitted and regularly works closely with the RSPCA, local councils, Defra (The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), C.A.R.I.A.D., the police, and Animal Protection Services to name a few. Only a fraction of pet rehomings result in a subsequent discussion with our Trust & Safety team, and only a proportion of these are concerns which warrant further action.

“We are also dedicated to ensuring that prospective pet owners are protected. We are the first platform of our kind to offer a third party deposit scheme, which ensures that payment is not completed until pets are safely rehomed. Implemented to offer peace of mind to all involved, the Pets4Homes Safe Deposit Service allows sellers to set the required deposit amount, which buyers then pay into a third party escrow account. Funds are only released once both parties confirm, via their Pets4Homes accounts, that the process has been successful.

This process is mandatory for all puppy sales for accounts registered less than 12 months ago. Additionally, we offer a rehoming checklist that buyers must follow in order to ensure a safe rehoming process. Buyers agree to adhere to this checklist upon registration and it is also publicly displayed alongside each listing.”

Have you tried to buy a puppy online? Tell us about your experience in the comments section below.