How to identify and avoid puppy scams

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Last year, my partner and I welcomed a new dog to the family. While searching on Gumtree, we came across an ad with a single image of the dog. I messaged the ‘breeder’ and requested more photos. Their response to that request was, ‘Yes, he is still available!’ We received multiple messages asking if we'd like to adopt him and when to arrange payment. Thankfully we knew not to engage after the first response because we knew what to look for.

Aussies love their dogs, with half of all households owning at least one dog. With so many available breeds, it's easy to adopt one that fits your lifestyle. They can be cuddling companions, exercise buddies, or they can even help secure your home.

While online shopping can yield some unbeatable bargains, it can also lead you right into the honey trap of a scam. It pays to do your due diligence and be sure your seller is 100% legitimate before proceeding with payment. This philosophy is no different when searching for a new furry companion.

Pandemic puppies

Nearly 2 in 5 dogs (37%) were acquired between 2020 and 2021. With all the extra time at home, it's no surprise dog ownership shot up during the pandemic! Scammers capitalised on this by preventing potential buyers from seeing the animal and blaming it on social distancing. At this time, the ACCC’s Scamwatch reported $1.3 million lost to puppy scams., and in 2021, this number rose to $4.2 million. 

Puppy scams

The typical puppy scam lures you in with fake (albeit adorable) photos of "ready-to-adopt" pups before taking off with your hard-earned cash. Scammers plaster fake listings all over social media and online marketplaces like Gumtree and Facebook Marketplace. Some scammers might even create a fake website or social media account to zero in on a particular breed. These breeds are often in high demand, like poodle mixes and French bulldogs. The scammer pretends to be a breeder, potentially going as far as stealing the identity and information of registered and reputable breeders.

Signs of a reputable breeder

While there may be lots of scammers out there, there's also many reputable breeders. Here's how to spot one.

Their social media. Using social media isn’t a red flag in a reputable breeder. Many breeders advertise incoming litters on Facebook and Gumtree, and it can be useful if you want the pick of the litter. The key is to read the breeder's reviews. They might provide pictures of the pups all grown up, vouch for a smooth handover, or let you know how the breeder handled a complication. 

They’re happy to meet. It's always a good idea to meet the breeder and the pup before handing over payment. Unless they’re far away or interstate, most breeders will recommend a visit before buying. If you’re not able to visit the breeder, arrange a phone call or video chat. 

When I purchased my first dog, the breeder wanted to feel comfortable knowing they were handing over their pup to a couple who weren’t first-time dog owners. We spoke to her over video chat multiple times and got to know her as she got to know us. 

They’re comfortable answering questions. What are the parents’ temperament like? What kind of environment are they living in at the moment? How many litters has mum had previously? Asking questions will give you an idea of what your puppy might be like, especially if the parents have reactivity or health issues. Reputable breeders will also provide their registered breeder number and proof of the puppy’s health records and vaccination schedule.

Signs of a puppy scam

Contact with a puppy scammer can feel genuine, especially if you’re unsure what to look for. Here are some of the most common red flags.

Minimal or stock photos. Do the photos in the listing look a little too... perfect? If the listing looks like it was taken with a professional camera, or even worse, doesn’t include an image of the dog they’re trying to sell, it’s a good sign the puppy doesn't exist. Additionally, be wary of listings that only contain one photo. If they decline when you ask for more photos of the dog, it’s likely you’re dealing with a scam. 

They ask to be paid in crypto. If any self-proclaimed ‘breeder’ asks you to pay in cryptocurrency or gift cards, it’s a scam. If they’re not a scammer, they won’t mind you paying with a traceable, secure payment method. 

They’re pushy. Scammers love to put you in a fight-or-flight situation. They might say things like ‘I have a few other people interested’ or ‘I need a holding deposit to secure the transaction’. They’ll push you into making a decision, even if you need time to think it through. If you feel rushed in any way, you could be dealing with a scammer. 

They type with bad spelling or grammar. You’ve seen it. A hallmark indicator of a scam is words like ‘dear’ and ‘love’. If they don’t use commas or full stops, or it seems like they’re using an AI bot to message you about the listing, steer clear. While not everyone’s going to be a wordsmith with perfect grammar, it pays to keep an eye out for any language that seems off. The best way to ensure you’re speaking to a real person is to video chat with them. 

The price is too good to be true. Puppies are expensive! While you can get some good deals on online marketplaces, be wary if the price is too low. Scammers looking to capitalise on the popularity of breeds like French bulldogs, Samoyeds, and poodle mixes will list them for extremely low prices to trick you into thinking you’ve struck a bargain. 

They won't let you come and see the puppy. One of the best ways to avoid a puppy scam is to visit the breeder and the puppy. It’ll allow you to chat with the breeder face to face, discuss the dog, and talk about the next steps. If the ‘breeder’ is hesitant or uncomfortable meeting, it could be a sign of a scam.

How to avoid them

  • Check the Australian breeder directory for approved and accredited breeders. While this won’t apply if the pup you're after is a rescue, if you’re buying from a reputable breeder, confirm their information matches up to what's shown on the directory.
  • Request to visit the breeder and pup. 
  • Perform a location search of the breeder’s address. If the information looks like it was stolen from another breeder, view the address on Google Street View to see if it matches what you were told. 
  • Compare pricing on the listing to the price of other breeders to ensure you’re paying a fair price. 
  • Don’t pay by gift card, cryptocurrency, or any method that can’t be traced. Paypal, credit, and debit cards are your best options. 
  • Ask to view additional images of the puppies and their parents. 
  • Do a reverse image and text search. This will let you know if the image used was taken from a stock company or if they’re scamming buyers on multiple websites.

What to do if you fall victim

If you’ve sent money to someone you think may be a scammer, contact your bank or financial institution immediately, as they may be able to reverse the charge. Report the incident to Scamwatch, and the platform that hosted the scam. 

Hannah Geremia
Written by
Hannah Geremia
Hannah has had over six years of experience in researching, writing, and editing quality content. She loves gaming, dancing, and animals, and can usually be found under a weighted blanket with a cup of coffee and a book.

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