With a pandemic raging on and many folks working from home, it’s never been a better time to introduce a furry friend into the family, but the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) warns that scammers have adapted to the pandemic as well.

Like many Americans this year, Kati Rager, 32, hoped to find a puppy to while away the quarantine days, and like many Americans stuck inside, she took her search online and soon found a Teacup Yorkshire Terrier up for adoption. 

“I was looking for a companion for my 10-year-old dog I currently have,” said Rager. 

“This person commented with a picture of the dogs and a phone number,” she wrote in her report to the Better Business Bureau.

Rager emailed back and forth with the unknown seller. She was given pictures and video of the puppy, but when she asked to meet in person, the seller was hesitant. 

“They wanted the money up front. CashApp $350 to Ray Frasard. I started to feel pushed to pay for a dog I’ve never seen,” she said.

A screenshot from a puppy scammer. (Photo: Kati Rager)
A screenshot from a puppy scammer. (Photo: Kati Rager)

Eventually Rager decided to do something scammers hope potential victims avoid: research.

‘The phone [number] is associated with several different websites. Several different U.S. states. I explained that I was uncomfortable doing the transaction before meeting. And they just kept trying to reassure me it was not a scam. I felt it was right to report this,” said Rager.

The Tennessee Better Business Bureau (BBB) has received hundreds of reports related to puppies never received and other pandemic-related schemes.

“Scammers are opportunists . . . . because they know people are eager to get back to normalcy,” said Robyn Householder, president of the BBB in Tennessee.

As the nation hunkers down in the midst of a pandemic and moves to web-based shopping, there’s been an increase of more than 87% in online scams this year.  

Puppy schemes are the number-one scam nationwide, There were approximately 347 reports of puppy scams nationwide in November alone, an increase from 37 reports in November 2019, according to Householder. BBB staff estimates that puppy scams will have cost $3 million in losses by the end of 2020, up from only $1 million in 2019.

Victims between the ages of 35 to 55 have been most susceptible to scams, and unless the puppy was paid for with a credit card, there isn’t much officials can do. 

“Pay with a credit card. It’s the easiest way to reverse the charge. Do not use a debit card, money order, gift card, ect, and report the site,” said Householder, adding that depending on the amount, victims should report the incident to the police. 

Look for red flags, warns Householder. If the customer knows what to look for, scams are easy to pick out. A lot of scams come from overseas and aren’t well-versed in the English language, so “scammer grammar” is  easy to identify, she said. Those adorable pictures of fluffy, blue-eyed huskies are probably stolen from somewhere else, and if the image is reverse searched, chances are it’s a common image.

In general, shopping online from unknown sources is always risky. The best way to avoid scams is to buy local or research the breeder to avoid sick puppies. This is a time to reconsider before making a life-long commitment, said Householder, and “do not pay for the pet until you meet the pet.”

“It’s better to adopt than shop,” she said. 

A screenshot from a scammer purporting to have a puppy for sale. (Screenshot: Kati Rager
A screenshot from a scammer purporting to have a puppy for sale. (Screenshot: Kati Rager)

In this time of uncertainty, there’s no wonder that people are falling for scams online, either through social media, phone calls or text messages. The FTC has been busy this year warning of a wide variety of pandemic schemes and educating shoppers on how to protect themselves. 

The scammers have been clever. Victims received messages disguised as coming from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to take an online COVID-19 test, which “there’s no way to test for COVID online,” adds Housholder. Others have been told that they will have early access to the vaccine at a price. Victims may also receive offers for payment in return for participating in COVID vaccine trials. 

“What we’re seeing is unsolicited text messages, emails and social media saying that ‘you may qualify to participate in a COVID-19 trial,’ and they’re offering anything from $1,000 to $1,200,” said Householder.

Once a victim clicks on the link, scammers are able to access all sorts of personal information. Once this happens, victims have limited choices.

“If it’s malware… unfortunately there’s not much you can do other than to take [the appliance] to a reputable repair shop and immediately start changing all of your passwords,” she said. 

Every time shoppers panic and rush stores, scammers advertise having plenty of supplies, and victims either never receive the product or receive a product of substandard quality.

“If Amazon and Walmart don’t have the product and then you get a pop-up ad that says they have plenty of product, that’s a big red light,” said Householder, adding that shoppers should always shop from trusted vendors.

Fake COVID cures have also been popular this year, with scammers charging exorbitant prices for “cures” not backed by any governing agency.

“Since the inception of COVID, we’ve seen a significant number of reports of people falling prey to fake cures, and it can be anything from incense to vaccines because there’s still so much question about COVID and how to overcome it,” said Householder.

“Don’t look for cures beyond what your physician is talking to you about,” warned Householder.

Scammers have been targeting more vulnerable victims. With unemployment on the rise, victims have received unsolicited job offers from Amazon, or ads offering extra cash for the holidays. Others may potentially be used as money mules. 

Tips for avoiding scams:

  • If you are looking for a pet, adopt from a shelter.
  • Reverse check emails to ensure they are legitimate.
  • Be wary of unsolicited job offers.
  • When purchasing products online, use a credit card, not a debit card.
  • COVID cures are not available online, nor can vaccines be administered online.

“One involves the increase in money mules, oftentimes using people who are also likely victims of romance scams or work-from-home scams to funnel money for the scammers,” said  Susan Niland, spokesperson for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. 

“We actually worked with some of our federal partners, who were seeing a similar uptick, in producing an alert news release and video piece to warm people of the tactics,” she said. 

Although there are some scenarios where offers are legit, always reverse check the email and the offer, because chances are high the scammers aren’t from Amazon.

“Unless you have shown interest, they will not reach out to you,” said Householder.

According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, child exploitation is on the rise as well. With children at home online learning, it’s more important than ever for parents to monitor their child’s online activity and teach them about potential dangers.

In general, the easiest way to avoid scams is “exercise patience,” said Householder.

“If you’re going to be making a decision about any purchase, because we’re so used to doing things quickly and getting instant gratification, this is a time to take a step back and slow down,” said Householder.

Rager continues to search for a new puppy on social media, but has so far experienced three scams in quick succession.

“I even told the last one that I have been scammed before and I wanted to meet in person. They would not do so,” she said.