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Column: Pets make great coronavirus companions. And scammers know it

Pet-related scams on the rise
The Better Business Bureau says complaints involving pet-related scams soared in April as demand grew for stay-at-home pandemic pals.
(stock.adobe.com)

Not surprisingly, animal shelters and rescue groups nationwide and across the Southland have reported a surge in pet adoptions since the coronavirus forced everyone to stay home.

A furry friend can do wonders to help ease the stress, anxiety and loneliness of life during the pandemic.

Unfortunately, and also not surprisingly, all this interest in dogs and cats has created a boom in pet-related fraud reports.

John Novaria, a spokesman for the Better Business Bureau, told me this week that consumers filed more reports of pet scams in April than in the first three months of the year combined.

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“People are lonely,” he said. “These are difficult times. People are looking for companionship.”

This represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for bogus breeders and other unscrupulous types looking to fleece consumers with online listings for nonexistent critters, or to nail people with sky-high fees for dubious services.

“We even saw one instance where someone was asked for money so a dog could be given COVID medication before shipment,” Novaria said.

Needless to say, there is no approved medication for COVID-19, either for pooches or people (or presidents for that matter, but that’s a different story).

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Novaria said the BBB received 371 complaints of pet-related fraud in April, a more than 200% increase from the same month a year earlier. There were 306 such complaints in January, February and March combined.

Financial losses related to pet fraud typically run in the hundreds of dollars, Novaria said, but it’s not unusual to see losses of as much as $5,000.

He said the BBB received one report of a woman who was charged about $60,000 to have a puppy shipped from Texas to Minneapolis.

The woman was repeatedly asked to pay additional fees, and her willingness to do so — and seeming desperation to adopt this particular pup — apparently encouraged the seller to keep tacking on extra charges.

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“I wouldn’t call this person ‘gullible,’” Novaria replied when I asked who would spend $60,000 on a puppy. “I would call her ‘impulsive.’”

I’d say she was barking up the wrong tree in seeking a pricey purebred instead of a rescue dog, but I’ll get back to that.

First, an acknowledgement from personal experience that a pet can be the perfect friend at a time like this.

As I write this at home, I’m glancing down at the 80-pound St. Bernard/golden retriever my wife and I adopted from the West Los Angeles Animal Shelter about six years ago.

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Teddy has seldom left my side throughout this stay-at-home ordeal, and has been an invaluable source of comfort and solace when my mood has been darkest.

We also have a beauty queen of a calico kitty adopted from the same shelter. She’s made it her mission to practice moves from Cirque du Soleil on the bed as we try to sleep at night.

Some of my single, childless friends have told me their pets are the only thing making home confinement tolerable.

California last year became the first state in the nation to ban pet stores from selling dogs, cats and rabbits that aren’t rescues. In other words, all such critters have to come from shelters and nonprofits.

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The goal of the Pet Rescue and Adoption Act was to shut down so-called puppy mills and kitten factories — facilities that “house animals in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions without adequate food, water, socialization or veterinary care,” according to a fact sheet for the law.

However, state residents are still free to purchase dogs, cats and rabbits directly from breeders, and it’s this loophole that scammers are exploiting in response to heightened demand amid the pandemic.

There are trustworthy breeders out there, but it’s up to you to do your homework.

The BBB found in a 2017 study that at least 80% of sponsored ads that come up in internet searches for pets may be bogus.

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Many of these rackets are run by scammers in West Africa using U.S.-based accomplices to receive and forward funds from victims, the organization reported.

Never buy a pet — particularly an expensive purebred — without seeing it in person. If that’s impossible because of the coronavirus or because the animal is too far away, at the very least check out the seller online.

Pro tip: Do a web search of the puppy’s or kitten’s picture.

Some scammers are clever, but many are lazy. They’ll grab a photo online of the cutest baby animal available. The same picture, therefore, might turn up in multiple listings from multiple sources. Obviously that’s a red flag.

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Never wire money or use gift cards for payment — you’ll almost certainly never see your money again if the transaction turns out to be fraudulent.

Always use a credit card with built-in fraud protection, although that too can be perilous, so consider placing a “freeze” on your credit files before any such transaction.

Watch out for add-on charges. Many scammers, as well as some legitimate breeders, will try to lure you in with cut-rate prices for purebred pups and then demand hefty payments for special crates, vaccinations and transit services.

If you want to arrange shipping on your own, do a search for a reputable service on the website of the International Pet and Animal Transportation Assn.

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But here’s how you can avoid all these potential hassles: Turn to your nearest shelter for animals immediately available for adoption.

Most shelters are currently closed to the public or open on an appointment-only basis because of the coronavirus, but they’re still seeking homes for dogs and cats.

“Every day is a new adventure or challenge as we learn what works and what is needed for pets and the people who love them during the pandemic,” said Brenda Barnette, general manager of L.A. Animal Services, which runs the city’s shelters.

You can search online for animals available from city and county facilities.

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Also think about fostering, which means providing a temporary home to a dog or cat, or to some puppies or kittens. My wife and I have fostered several batches of kittens on behalf of the West L.A. shelter, and it’s a deeply rewarding experience.

Also, Teddy totally digs it, as my Twitter followers are well aware.

The bottom line is that a pet makes a great pal at a time when we can all use some extra love. But any time demand increases for something, the chances of your being conned go up as well.

Be careful, keep your eyes open, avoid any deal that looks too good to be true.

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And don’t skimp on the squeaky toys. Seriously, you can never have too many squeaky toys around the house.


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