(ABC News) -- Most online listings for puppies are fraudulent ads from scammers, according to a report released Tuesday by the Better Business Bureau.
The scam has become so widespread – thousands of consumers have been ripped off, with losses estimated in the millions of dollars – that virtually anyone looking for a puppy online is likely to encounter it.
“All the BBBs across the country have recorded this scam on a regular basis and it is increasing,” said Steve Bernas, president and CEO of the Chicago bureau, adding that officials are bracing for expected scams involving “free” homeless pets displaced by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.
The report looked at online ads for pets – primarily for puppies but also kittens, parrots and other animals – and identified fake websites, stolen photos and phony shipping services. They concluded that up to 80 percent of online ads for puppies are fake, with most appearing to originate in the West African nation of Cameroon and many sites registered in just the past few months.
Consumers who fall in love with one of these pets online are asked to first send money for a special shipping crate and transport, and provide other fees for insurance, vaccinations, medicine, food and water. They send the money, but no one sends the puppy.
As of 2015, the Federal Trade Commission had 37,000 consumer complaints involving pets, the vast majority believed to be about scams, the study said. The BBB has fielded 907 complaints. Experts say most people don’t report such scams, instead chocking up their losses, which can range between $100 and $1,000, to their own naiveté.
Buyers who waffle at paying the fees are sometimes told the puppy is already at the airport and if they don’t sent more money for shipping, they will be criminally charged with abandonment of an animal, said Jeni Redmond of the International Pet and Animal Transportation Association.
“They will accuse you of abandoning the pet, but don’t send them any more money,” Redmond said.
Redmond said some of the fake pet sites link to phony transportation websites, some of which lift information from her members’ real sites.
Last week, Delta Airlines filed suit in U.S. District Court in Georgia against a website called DeltaPetTransit.com, alleging the site uses Delta’s logos and images of its plane while offering no actual services.
ABC News tried to reach the DeltaPetTransit website operators for comment; the phone number was not functioning and messages left by email and via their website were not returned.
Victims of pet scams are asked to send the money via Western Union or MoneyGram or to use prepaid gift cards such as iTunes cards.
The money is collected by “mules” – co-conspirators who live in the United States – and then sent overseas to the ringleaders, Bernas said. The payments are like cash and are impossible to recoup.
“It’s like opening the window and throwing it out,” Bernas said. “You’ll never get it back.”
Michael Wilborn of suburban Chicago said his daughter nearly paid $650 for a cuddly English bulldog puppy until she did a reverse image search on Google and realized the puppy’s photo was a copy of a Pinterest picture from 2008.
“She had really gotten her hopes up,” he said. “The picture was really cute.”
In addition to doing a reverse image search, experts say avoid sellers who won’t talk on the phone, refuse to allow you to see the dog in person or offer too-good-to-be-true prices.
“If someone is selling an English bulldog for $200, that’s a tip-off right there,” Redmond said.
© 2017 ABC News