I thought it was funny that everyone wanted to adopt a dog during the pandemic. I adopted my first dog, Leela, nearly 12 years ago. Since I already had Leela, I felt lucky I wasn’t in the mad rush of people calling rescues, joining waitlists, hoping that they would find a dog within a few weeks, all to train it and spend some time with it before being called back to their offices full time. But then something happened — my dad’s dog passed away unexpectedly and suddenly several weeks ago.
My dad’s dog, Shanthi, was a purebred Japanese Chin gifted to him nearly ten years ago, and she meant everything to him. There wasn’t a place he wouldn’t take her. Since retiring and spending his days at home and in the garden, Shanthi was his companion and probably his emotional support pet — even if we hadn’t gone as far as officially certifying her as such.
Overnight, I was in the market for a new dog — and not just any dog, but a purebred, female, black/white Japanese Chin.
I started with an internet search, which didn’t turn up too much. It did lead me to petfinder.org, where I came across a vague listing that took me to a strange website featuring Japanese Chin puppies. The site seemed odd — all the pictures looked like stock images and were sourced from different places. There were no pictures of the parent dogs, no links to pedigrees or health testing. Despite feeling like something was off, I filled out the contact form to find out if they had any puppies available. They did!
They had one female Japanese Chin 11 week old puppy available for $800, and it could be shipped to me overnight.
It was too good to be true.
The price was fantastic — all the other puppies I had inquired about were $1900 to $3,000. And what’s more, they had a puppy available right now! I didn’t have to wait for 3 to 6 months like most of the other breeders I had checked. Against my better judgment, I didn’t ask to get on the phone with the seller and talk through details — I just asked how I could secure the puppy. The next thing I knew, I sent him $980 via Zelle and received a tracking form from the animal delivery company. The puppy would be here in three days! We started getting ready.
On the day the puppy was coming, we heard nothing all morning. I checked the tracking, and there were no updates. At 1 pm, I got an email from the delivery company saying that I needed to send them $1,380 via Zelle to insure the puppy. It would be returned to me on delivery that afternoon. This seemed strange. Why would I guarantee a puppy for more than what I paid for it? I called the delivery company, and no one answered. I emailed the seller, who assured me this was normal via email. When I asked why there was no mention of this in our contract, they didn’t respond. When I asked them to call me, they didn’t respond. When I said I wouldn’t send the money unless I heard from the delivery company — I received a call within 15 minutes from the delivery company.
There is no puppy.
The whole thing felt wrong, so I refused to pay the additional request and reported the fraud to my bank and Zelle. Sadly, I had no recourse — Zelle transactions are the same as cash. I was out $980. Thank goodness I hadn’t sent any more. I learned the hard way not to be so trusting. I never heard from the seller again.
But what if you want to adopt a new pet?
It turns out my experience is far from unique. Taking more precaution doesn’t necessarily protect you either — puppy and kitten scammers are getting more sophisticated, and the pet industry is rife with them. Given the lack of available dogs at shelters and rescues during the Covid pandemic, reputable dog breeders found themselves overwhelmed with requests for puppies as people looked to dogs as a source of companionship and activity. This situation made an already lucrative industry (puppy scamming) even more lucrative. What’s worse, these scammers prey on emotions, conning trusting people to part with their savings with no recourse. But how can you make sure you aren’t caught up in one of these scams?
The saddest part about this is that there really is no way to be 100% sure that the new addition to your family you’ve found is real.
Scammers have become so sophisticated — mine went so far as to invent a pet delivery company with false bills of lading. However, here are red flags to be aware of so you can make sure your new pet is real.
The seller won’t talk to you on the phone.
If you’re buying a puppy from a breeder, they will want to talk to you on the phone. Reputable breeders are not in this business for the money (believe me, there isn’t much unless you’re running a puppy mill) but because they are passionate about a particular breed and want to continue to improve its quality. They would not be willing to give one of their precious puppies to just anyone. Many have clauses that if you decide not to keep the dog, you must return it to the breeder and not sell it or give it away to a rescue. Most won’t accept you onto their waitlists or take a deposit without chatting with you first. If you come across someone willing to sell you a puppy but hasn’t or won’t speak with you on the phone and doesn’t seem to care about why you want a pet or the environment you can provide for it, BEWARE!
The website doesn’t feel right.
Websites with stock photos, non-current photos, no information about the parents of the pets for sale, no health information are suspect. Reputable breeders spend time on their sites sharing their breeding philosophies. Most of them actively health check their parent animals. They don’t over breed, and they have information on how to contact them and how to join their waitlists. They are transparent on pricing on the site. If you’re not sure if the pictures on a website are real, you can do a Google reverse image search. If they appear in other places on the web, you know there is a problem.
You have only one photo of your future pet.
Reputable breeders will share regular photos, videos, and other updates of their litters as they grow. The seller shouldn’t hesitate to facetime or zoom with you so you can see your new fur baby. Some breeders have live webcams where you can pop in at any time to see your pet as it grows. Be careful of photos with magazines or newspapers in the background — while sometimes helpful, these can be fake. If you have any suspicions, do not pay in full until your new pet is in your hands.
You can’t reach your seller’s references.
While this may not be the case for new breeders, experienced breeders will have no hesitation in referring you to previous clients. Many have Facebook pages or Instagram handles with reviews and comments from their animals’ owners from past litters. It’s even better is if you know someone that adopted an animal from them. Another way to ensure that the pet you’re trying to buy is real is to ask for the veterinarian’s name. You can contact them to confirm that the seller is a client.
You can’t pay via secured payment methods.
Never pay in full for a pet with cash or a cash-based app before you’ve seen or received the animal. Several breeders use Zelle, Cash App, or Venmo — however, most will allow you to pay with PayPal if you are willing to pay the transaction fee. This fee is worth it if you’re at all hesitant or unsure — once you pay via a cash app, you have nearly no ability to get that money back if it is a scam. Others let you process the remaining balance when you pick up your pet.
The seller knows you’re emotionally attached to the pet.
I’m guilty of this — it’s so hard not to feel emotionally attached to the pet you think you’re going to own, but thinking with your heart and not your head can get you into trouble when there are red flags. If you’re attached, it’s easier to explain away unreasonable fees or ignore your gut feeling that something is wrong.
Heeding these red flags doesn’t guarantee you’ll stay clear of a scam, but they may help you avoid the situation I went through.