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Don’t Fall for a Pet Scam

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When you’re emotionally invested in a potential new pet, it’s easy to fall for scams and fraud. But there are ways to make sure you don’t fall for a pet scam.


See Pet Scams with Jack Whittaker for a complete transcript of the Easy Prey podcast episode.

Jack Whittaker is a doctoral researcher in criminology at the University of Surrey in the UK. He has published works in the field of online fraud, presented at fraud symposiums, and provided expert interviews for national and international news sources. He also helps run petscams.com, a voluntary counter-fraud initiative trying to help people identify and avoid pet scams.

What is a pet scam?

Pet scams are unique to the United States, Canada, Australia, and South Africa. Consumers go online and find a pet they want, but they either can’t or don’t want to travel long distances to get the pet. This is a great opportunity for scammers to set up websites selling pets that don’t exist.

Puppy mills or receiving a sick pet are an animal welfare issue. In a pet scam, whoever is selling the animal has no intention of actually delivering it. Jack and the volunteers at petscams.com have seen millions of dollars lost every year to these scams.

How pet scams work

A scammer makes a website

Someone starting a pet scam will build a website. They’ll find a domain name registrar to purchase the domain name (often a registrar who is friendly towards scammers). Then they will either build the site themselves or have a colleague build the site. After paying a small fee to that colleague, they have a website. There are even tools to download the entire contents of a website so scammers can effectively clone legitimate breeders’ websites.

This website doesn’t do them any good unless people come to it. So they purchase large amounts of Google ads. Jack has seen some pet scam websites spend over $10,000 on Google ads. This money is a combination of data trading and reinvesting the “profits” from scam victims. There are also tons of Facebook groups, Pinterest groups, and Twitter pages advertising these fake pets.

Scammers congregate towards infrastructure that is friendly towards scammers.

Jack Whittaker

A victim finds a pet

Now someone interested in a pet gets on the internet and finds the scammer’s site. They see a pet they really like, so they contact the scammer. The scammer responds and says something like, “Great, this pet is still available! We’re even selling at 50% off.”

It's easy to fall in love with a pet you found online, but that makes it easy to fall for a pet scam.

Now the victim is hooked with what’s called “visceral appeal.” Adorable pictures of the pet get the emotions involved, and now that 50% off has triggered the sense of getting a good deal.

What they are doing is appealing to what’s called “visceral appeals,” which evokes an “I like that” response from the victim.

Jack Whittaker

The victim has opened communication with the scammer and they really want that pet. So now they pay the deposit fee. These fees used to be paid with Western Union or MoneyGram or similar. Now it’s primarily Zelle, Walmart-to-Walmart money transfer in the US, or bank account transfer in Australia and South Africa.

The fees keep coming – and the victim pays

Since the victim is now invested both emotionally and financially, the scammer can keep defrauding them for more. Many scammers say they own a shipping company and contact them pretending to be a shipping agent. They charge more than any legitimate shipping company would and add on unnecessary fees and extra charges. The pet scams have adapted to coronavirus, too, so now they’ll charge for things like COVID vaccine fees and quarantine fees.

At this point, the scammer just keeps coming up with new reasons the victim has to pay until the victim runs out of money or realizes it’s a scam. They can go as far as claiming to be law enforcement who will charge the victim with animal abandonment if they don’t pay the fee, or even blackmail if the victim is importing a restricted or illegal pet. One victim Jack came across lost $15,000 because the scammer told her there was a plane crash and he was going to sue her.

It’s about 15% technology, 85% social engineering, and it really is social engineering at its finest.

Jack Whittaker

Multiple victims (and beneficiaries)

The people hurt by pet scams aren’t just the ones who lost money trying to purchase a new pet. Some scammers will find houses that are for sale and use those addresses for their fake breeder. When the house is sold, some new owners have a bunch of angry people showing up, demanding their money or their dog.

If the scammer has cloned the website of a legitimate breeder, when the victim realizes they’ve been scammed, they don’t go after the scammer – they go after the legitimate breeder who had nothing to do with it. People who post their pets’ pictures on Instagram have had those images stolen and used in a pet scam. Legitimate organizations like IPATA (International Pet and Animal Transportation Association) have had their logo stolen so much that they may soon be only thought of in relation to scams.

The scammers aren’t the only ones profiting from these scams, either. The companies who sell domain names to scammers are making money from these scams. The hosting providers that rent out the server space the sites run on are, too. There isn’t a lot of regulation around website registration and hosting. Though it’s not commonly thought about, Jack thinks it’s important to ask if the hosting providers and domain name providers that profit from these scams are at all responsible.

A scammer built a website and uses it to run a pet scam. Is the company hosting the website completely innocent?

The perfect scam

Despite the emotional impact, no one really cares about pet scams. If you commit an internet crime and scam everyone in the United States out of $1, you’ve committed the perfect crime. Because the amount of money lost is so low, few people will report it and no one will look into it. This is the problem with pet scams. Because the quantities of money stolen from an individual victim are so small, most don’t get investigated or fought. There isn’t enough money in it for cybersecurity to tackle these scams. It’s left to volunteers to fight back.

We don’t want to be doing it, but we feel like we have to … not because we’re Batman-type people, but because we’re good at it, even though we don’t make a lot from it.

Jack Whittaker

Jack thinks it would be worthwhile for the cybersecurity field to investigate pet scams, though. It’s easy to apply what you learn about scammers’ methods through pet scams to other cybercrimes. And often, pet scams are not the only type of scams these scammers are doing. A scammer might be running a pet scam, but also other scams selling things that people pay for but the scammers never send. These are often things like opioids, guns, human organs, and suspiciously-aged sex dolls – the kinds of things that people will never report being scammed over. Pet scams are just the tip of the iceberg, and targeting pet scams will target other scams at the same time.

Avoid falling for a pet scam

Jack recommends being wary of non-refundable payment methods. Western Union and MoneyGram are the easy ones, but Bitcoin, Zelle, and Walmart-to-Walmart transfer are also suspicious. Anything where there’s no way to reverse or cancel the transfer makes it easier for a scammer to take your money and leave you with no options.

The best way to make sure you’re dealing with a legitimate breeder and not a pet scam website is to have a video chat. Jack recommends asking to see the mother and pups on the video chat. He’s sure scammers will adapt to that in the future, but for now, the best advice is to do video chats – or if you can, go visit the breeder in person.

There are a lot of technical things you can do to see if a website is genuine. You can go into the WHOIS, look at the name servers, find the IP address, and fish around. But you don’t need to do all the technical stuff when a video chat will do just as well. One of the things that frustrates Jack about information security as a field is that they throw around lots of tech jargon when in reality, you only need simple steps to keep yourself safe.

Jack Whittaker volunteers with petscams.com as well as scam.directory, a directory of scam websites. Both are funded by donations, and you are welcome to use data from either site. Jack encourages law enforcement, IT devs, and InfoSec professionals to get in touch with him. He can be found on LinkedIn.

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