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A few weeks ago, Katie Mills found the goldendoodle puppy of her dreams listed on a Facebook page for Midwest dog adoptions. The breeder had a professional-looking profile page, and to Mills’ delight, was located in a neighboring city. The kicker? The puppy had the same name as her last dog, Maggie, who passed away last year. Mills was ecstatic.

The breeder said she couldn’t meet in person because of the pandemic, but since Mills and her husband had an immediate emotional connection to the ball of fluff on their computer screen, they agreed to put down a $650 payment through Zelle to “reserve” it.

After that, things went downhill fast.

“A few days later, we saw someone post a screenshot of the breeder in the same Facebook group saying it was all fake,” Mills says. Her husband did a reverse Google image search and found that the person they’d sent the deposit to was using recycled photos of goldendoodle puppies from other websites. When March 22, the pick-up day they’d agreed on, rolled around, the “breeder” stopped responding. Maggie didn’t exist, and the couple lost their money.

Online puppy scams like these are more popular than ever.

On the Better Business Bureau’s (BBB) “scam tracker” websites, dozens of people report fake pet sites and social media groups every week — many of whom paid thousands of dollars for dogs they never received. Many more go unreported: In 2020 alone, the projected loss to American and Canadian consumers stood at an estimated $3 million, according to BBB data.

This trend was fueled by the pandemic, when many people were stuck at home, craving canine companionship. But as the stay-at-home orders wane and states rapidly reopen, scammers haven’t slowed down. In late March, a sheriff’s office in upstate New York warned residents of a group of scammers targeting locals with ads for fake corgis, French bulldogs, and other purebred dogs. A few days earlier, a family in Detroit was swindled out of nearly $1,000 for a boxer puppy that never arrived.

The demand for new family pets is high, even as daily life starts to normalize.

John Breyault, vice president of public policy, telecommunications and fraud at the National Consumers League, says many Americans who were worried about their jobs or finances at the beginning of the pandemic may be more confident in their economic security these days, and more willing to invest in a pet.

Likewise, legitimate breeders and adoption agencies are reopening now, so fraudsters are ramping up their efforts to take advantage of the tail end of the puppy craze, says American Kennel Club (AKC) spokeswoman Brandi Hunter.

“People may be going back to work soon and won’t be able to be at home with pets, so scammers might be worried the demand will decrease,” Hunter says.

Fake breeders usually use the same ploy: They build convincing websites, then advertise on social media or a classifieds site like Craigslist to steer people in their direction. Once a person makes contact, the scammer invents some reason why they can’t see the puppy in person and asks them to pay for the dog up front — often tacking on additional expenses like COVID-safe shipping crates, immunizations and airline fees.

Often, scammers request odd payment methods, like CashApp, Venmo, Zelle or gift cards, which Breyault says are difficult, if not impossible, to get refunded. (The Mills’ bank, for one, said it couldn’t refund the couple because it had already approved the transfer.)

Like the fake breeder who scammed the Mills family, scammers also play on the emotional vulnerability that’s inherent in searching for puppies online. “And then you end up wiring money before you take the time to really think about it,” Hunter says.

Keep in mind, Hunter says, that any viable seller will want to do some due diligence on you too.

“Responsible breeders want to know as much about you as you do about the dog,” she says. If they’re not concerned about whether you have a big enough space for a puppy, and a schedule that will allow you to care for it, that’s a red flag.

Fake "puppies for sale" websites

“Creating a list of these bogus sites is like playing Whack-a-Mole,” Hunter says, since they often get taken down within a matter of weeks.

Here’s a sampling of what’s currently out there. We’ll be updating this list of fake puppy sites continually, so check back shortly.

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