A pet scam cost this victim $4,000. Could you fall for it?

How to avoid a pet scam. (Photo: Bentley Puppy by Michelle Couch-Friedman)

Maria Witbrod wanted to add a new puppy to her family during the pandemic. But instead, a well-organized criminal operation led her into a costly and increasingly common pet scam.

Now $4,000 later and with no dog to show for it, she’s asking if the Elliott Advocacy team can help her.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group. Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

But how? That’s the $4,000 question for today.

Looking for a new puppy in all the wrong places

In early March, Witbrod was browsing the internet when she came across a website advertising puppies. As she scrolled through the site looking at the little happy faces, she felt her spirits lifting as well.

“Things have been difficult recently,” Witbrod explained. “My mom is terminally ill and was coming to live out the rest of her life with us.”

Suddenly Witbrod got a bit of an impulsive idea.

“I decided to buy one of those puppies!,” she recalled. “My thought was that the puppy would make my mom’s last days more enjoyable.”

Witbrod filled out the questionnaire and application and requested to purchase one of the puppies. She selected “Lilly,” a tiny pup with black and white markings all over.

“My guard was down,” Witbrod explains. “I think in my eagerness to get Lilly home to us as soon as possible, I overlooked a few things.”

Witbrod was absolutely correct. She had overlooked quite a few things.

Unfortunately, she would continue to overlook more warning signs that this website was just a front for a pet scam.

When the “breeder” asked Witbrod to pay $958 through Zelle (a money transfer service not meant to use to make purchases), she quickly complied.

But that was just the first of many jumbo payments she would make to try to secure Lilly’s safe delivery.

More cash app payment requests from this devious scammer

Next, this devious scammer had some other plans to drain Witbrod’s bank account. To ship the puppy, Witbrod would need to pay another $985 for a pressurized pet crate.

Then I received a request from the cargo company. It said that the $985 payment goes toward a pressurized crate. This is necessary to keep the puppy safe and they require it because, in the past, they had lost three puppies to inadequate crates/containers. I remember thinking, why on earth would they disclose the death of three puppies on their watch? What a horrid thought. You will understand later in this letter what I know now, why they mentioned the death of three puppies on their watch.

My confidence started shaking, but the ball was already rolling, and they said Lilly was already on her way home to me.

Now, Witbrod had invested just over $2,000 for Lilly, her shipping costs, plus the special crate. She tried to quell the uneasy feeling that was rising inside her. But then all the negative thoughts dissipated when she suddenly received a tracking number and a confirmation.

“It said Lilly had begun her journey to us,” Witbrod remembered. “I was so relieved!”

Unfortunately, this was just one more tactic deployed by skilled criminals to reel their victim in for the kill.

These scammers weren’t entirely done with Witbrod.

This pet scam isn’t over

Witbrod’s relief was short-lived when a few hours later, a text arrived.

The text said that I owed $1,750 for insurance, and if not paid, the puppy would not be delivered today. Given that these scammers had told me about the three dead puppies, I translated it to mean Lilly would be stuck in some cargo area of a connecting airport.

So, I’m in an emotionally weak time in my life. I know some [of the people reading this] may feel I should have seen the signs. But I’m not my normal self right now. My mind is rattled with thoughts of my mom and all the what-ifs.

As a result of her distracted state, Witbrod sent the $1,750.

And so, her emotional roller coaster ride continued: Lilly was back on her way.

Witbrod nervously sat watching the clock. The shipping company indicated that it would deliver her new puppy directly to her home at 7:50 p.m.

The worst part of that day came at 7:50. That’s when these scammers sent me another text and said my insurance payment came too late. My puppy would spend the night in the airport! I was distraught, thinking that Lilly was in danger. I emailed the shipping company 20 times, and the breeder too, asking for assurance that Lilly was safe. The fake breeder finally answered me and said my puppy was fine and was in the care of a veterinarian on staff at the airport. As deplorable of a human being this person is, I thank God he/she released me from worry.

But that deplorable human being was going to make one more cash grab attempt before letting Witbrod off the hook.

Finally, an end to the scam — but no puppy or refund included

The following day while Witbrod waited for a new delivery time for her new puppy, the scammers sent a new request.

Now Witbrod needed to send several hundred dollars more to transfer the puppy into her name.

But this request caused Witbrod to snap into reality.  Suddenly, even in her personal turmoil, she could see very clearly now. These people were scammers — common thieves — not dog breeders or a shipping company.

She picked up the phone and called Chase and Zelle hoping to stop all of the payments made in the past 48 hours.

Unfortunately, she soon found out what our regular readers already know: Zelle payments aren’t reversible — all transactions are final. (See: What if you sent money to a stranger by mistake?)

Chase instructed her to file a police report — which she immediately did. But neither Chase nor Zelle would reveal the true identity behind the cash app account that had scammed her.

Frustrated, Witbrod sent her plea for help to the Elliott Advocacy team.

“This pet scam broke my heart and my bank account!”

When Witbrod’s plea for help landed on my desk, I read through her lengthy paper trail. She told me that the scam had broken her heart and, of course, drained her bank account. Unfortunately, I knew right away that we could not retrieve her $4,000.

But having lost my father suddenly and unexpectedly during the pandemic, I sympathized with Witbrod’s foggy state over her mom’s terminal condition. I understand how the mind can wander in that grief and why someone could make decisions they might not otherwise make in normal circumstances.

But the bottom line was that she had made those payments willingly through the Zelle app. The only way Chase (or Zelle) would reverse or refund a transaction is if someone had hacked into her account.

Consumers beware: Money transfer apps are not meant to pay for products (or pets). If you’re going to use Zelle, Venmo, PayPal, or Cash App, among others, then you must make sure you’re using them as per the terms and conditions. Otherwise, you are leaving yourself vulnerable to a variety of scams and schemes.

Never buy puppies or anything else using a cash app

I broke the news to Witbrod.

I’m very sorry to hear about your mom and this situation.

Unfortunately, Zelle is not meant to be used in the way that you used it here.
Zelle is to send money to friends and family. No company should
be asking anyone to send payment via Zelle. The reason scammers are requesting
payments via Zelle is that the service is just like a wire transfer —
once the money is sent, it can’t be recalled, and it’s untraceable unless you’re
able to get a subpoena.

We are a consumer advocacy team without the resources to investigate crimes. I would
encourage you to continue working with the police department who can investigate
the website owner and any other entities involved in this scam. I’m
really sorry we can’t be helpful.

For her part, Witbrod says that she would like her story told to save others the misery she’s gone through.

Falling for this pet scam has been the worst experience of my life at the worst time in my life. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

Chase is conducting a full fraud investigation, which is ongoing.

How to spot and avoid a pet scam

Pet scams have existed for ages, but the pandemic has caused a surge in the success rate of these predators. If you’re in the market for a new pet, here are some tips that can help you dodge a scam.

  • Never buy a pet sight unseen
    Would you buy a house or a car without ever checking it out in person? Probably not, and you shouldn’t purchase a high-priced pet without ever seeing your new best friend either. Remember, scammers will probably show you cute videos and photos to tug at your heartstrings and pull you into their scam. You can stop this process by asking for a real-time visit. Legitimate breeders will welcome you with open arms. Of course, scammers don’t want you anywhere near their home base. A fraudster will likely give up after this request. Unfortunately, they have plenty of other potential victims on whom to focus.
  • Use Google Images
    If you absolutely insist on buying a puppy or kitten from a breeder you cannot visit, Google Images can help you confirm whether you’re dealing with a scammer or the real deal. Take the photos that you see on the website and drop them into Google images. You may find that the little furry friend actually already belongs to someone else. Most pet scams are conducted by thieves who use stock photos or just lift cute pictures from other websites. And, by the way, we know this type of picture thievery is not limited to pet scammers. (See: I wasted $2,000 on a vacation rental that doesn’t exist.) You can often stop an online predator in their tracks with the help of Google images.
  • Ask about membership in professional breeder organizations
    Most reputable breeders (cats or dogs) belong to professional breeder organizations. So if the person you’re corresponding with cannot provide any such information, move on — no matter how cute the puppy or kitten is.
  • Ask questions about your potential new pet
    If you’re dealing with a real person intent on selling you a pet, then they’ll be able to answer a variety of questions about the animal — and provide proof. Ask about the puppy’s (or kitten’s) parents and evidence of its vaccination schedule and other medical records. It’s unlikely that a scammer will be able to persuade a veterinarian to participate in their scheme. So contact the veterinarian listed on those records for confirmation.
  • Is the website secure?
    Another red flag to look out for is the security of the website. Since 2018, Google has required sites to switch to the more secure HTTPS format, which encrypts user information. Websites that choose not to convert will display a nonsecure alert in the address line at the top of your screen when you access the site. Most legitimate hosting platforms in 2021 provide a free security certificate to the sites that use their services. Of course, scammers don’t have any concern about protecting their users’ data or providing a secure user experience. So if a site has not adopted the HTTPS header, you should consider that a warning sign that you’re not dealing with a professional operation. In Witbrod’s case, the scammer’s website displayed the HTTP nonsecure status. On the day Witrod contacted us, it was still live. But several days later, as is typically the case with scam sites, the entire site had vanished.
  • Never pay for your new puppy or kitten with a cash app
    Money transfer services have quickly overshadowed wire transfers as the preferred method of payment by criminals. These apps can instantly deliver your cash directly into the hands of the scammer, with virtually no way to call it back. And the terms and conditions of the services make it clear that you have no buyer protection — the Fair Credit Billing Act does not apply. Keep that in mind if a stranger asks you to pay for anything with an instant money transfer service like Zelle or Venmo. Only use these money transfer apps to send money to people you know personally.
  • Report online pet scams and suspicious websites to enforcement agencies
    If you’ve been taken by an online scam, your first step is to call your bank ASAP. In some rare cases, and depending on how you’ve sent your payment, you may be able to stop the transfer if you catch it quickly enough. Next, report it to your state’s consumer protection advocacy organization and to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.
  • Please consider adopting a pet through your local shelter
    Do you know where you have virtually no chance of getting involved in a pet scam? Your local pet shelter. There you’ll see many friendly-faced homeless animals who would love to snuggle up in a forever home. If you’re looking to add a pet to your family, please visit your local animal shelter. You just might find your new best friend, one who can provide you with years of loyal love and kisses — with no scam included. Guaranteed! 🐶 (Michelle Couch-Friedman, Elliott Advocacy)