Animal lovers looking to purchase pets during the coronavirus lockdown have collectively been scammed out of more than £280,000 over the past two months, according to Action Fraud.
So far, 669 people have lost a combined total of £282,686 in March and April, after putting down deposits for pets they have seen advertised online.
Adverts were posted on social media, general online selling websites and also specific pet selling platforms.
Action Fraud said criminals posting these ads, for pets such as kittens and puppies, do not have animals to sell and will ask victims to put down a deposit for the pet to secure the purchase.
They use the outbreak of Covid-19 and social distancing restrictions as a reason why the victim cannot come and see the animal first, or pick it up.
After the initial payment, more and more funds will be requested to cover insurance, vaccinations and delivery of the pet.
Action Fraud has received reports of this scam from people all over the UK – with a spike in reports occurring in April when 524 reports were recorded.
Pauline Smith, head of Action Fraud, said: “The fact criminals will even exploit an international crisis, such as the one we find ourselves in now, to take innocent people’s money is especially cruel. But, unfortunately, as we spend more time online, and are forced to adapt to a new way of life, opportunities will arise for criminals to commit fraud.
“During these unprecedented times, it may seem quite plausible that you should have to pay a deposit for a pet and that you wouldn’t be able to see the animal in real life first. However, we would encourage you to think carefully before you transfer any money – do you know and trust this person?”
Pet scams are just one of many frauds being attempted during the lockdown.
Others include scammers selling fake coronavirus testing kits, carrying out bogus collections or asking for money to do people’s shopping for them and then disappearing with the cash.
There have also been fake investment opportunities aimed at people whose pensions and savings have been hit by the economic impact of coronavirus.
A statement from the RSPCA said: “Unfortunately we’ve investigated many criminal gangs who are willing to exploit animals in order to make a quick buck and now, during this time of international crisis, they will be trying new tricks to cash in and con the public.
“We’d urge anyone thinking of getting a new pet to think long and hard about whether they can properly care for that animal, not just now but into the future when restrictions are lifted and their lifestyles become more busy. If people do decide now is the right time to get a pet, then we’d always urge them to consider adopting instead of buying an animal. We still have thousands of animals in our care at the moment and have restarted rehoming some animals in England with strict measures to keep our staff and the public safe.
“Anyone who is concerned about a breeder or seller should walk away and contact the local council and RSPCA on 0300 1234 999.”
Action Fraud suggests the following tips to protect yourself from scams:
1. Do your research. Before buying online, whether it is pets or other purchases, look up reviews for the website, or person, you are buying from. If you are still not sure, ask a trusted friend or family member for their advice.
2. Trust your instinct. If you cannot physically go to see the animal in person, ask for a video call. If the seller declines, challenge them on why. If you have any suspicions, do not go ahead with the purchase.
3. Choose your payment method wisely. If you decide to go ahead with the purchase, try to avoid paying by bank transfer as it may offer you little protection if you become a victim of fraud. Instead, consider using a credit card or a payment service such as PayPal.
If you think you have fallen victim to a fraud, contact Action Fraud as soon as possible.
Paula Boyden, veterinary director at Dogs Trust, said: “We might be in the midst of a global pandemic, but these devious sellers will still use every trick in the book to scam unsuspecting dog lovers out of their hard-earned money.
“The impact on families can be devastating and we have been seeing many examples of this cruel practice.
“Sadly, it’s all too easy to be ‘dogfished’.
“If now is the right time for you to get a dog, identify a Kennel Club-assured breeder, or find a breeder through personal recommendation, always see a puppy interacting with their mum, even if it’s over a video call, ask lots of questions, and ask to see vital paperwork, such as a puppy contract.
“If you have any doubts or if it feels too good to be true, as hard as it may be, walk away and report the seller.”