How To Avoid An Online Puppy Scam: 9 Warning Signs & 2024 Stats


Last Updated: April 18, 2024 | 6 min read | 13 Comments

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Man holding smartphone with Craigslist ad for puppy.

Buying a puppy online can quickly turn into you spending hundreds (or thousands) of dollars but still being dogless. How? Because con artists are running puppy scams and getting away with it. Luckily, I have never personally experienced a puppy scam and hope that by sharing these tips, you can also avoid being their next victim.

Puppy Scam Stats

Puppy fraud is on the rise, especially during the pandemic or around the holidays when people are more vulnerable. Veterinarians.org analyzed data from The Better Business Bureau to determine which states had the most online puppy scams this year.

Key Findings:

  • From January 1, 2023, to October 31, 2023, there were 1,121 U.S. puppy scams reported (down from over 3,000 in 2021).
  • During the period from January through October 2023, a reported $1 million was lost due to puppy scams.
  • California is the #1 state with the most reported puppy scams, resulting in $89,248 in total loss.
  • Texas, Florida, and New York follow closely behind, with scam victims in these states, on average, losing more than $700.
  • Massachusetts has the most money lost per fraud. Scam victims lost an average of $1,615 in this state.
  • The term “puppies for sale” has more than 100,000 searches a month on Google.
  • French Bulldogs and Yorkshire Terriers are among the most commonly scammed puppy breeds.

How To Avoid Puppy Scams

The most obvious way to avoid a puppy scam? Don’t purchase a pet online. However, there are other steps you can take to make sure you don’t get scammed.

Adopt From A Shelter

We’re strong advocates for adoption. There is no shortage of shelters and organizations you can adopt through, and if you need a recommendation, ask your vet, family, friends, and neighbors.

Kopa adoption page on Petfinder

Just because a dog is in a shelter doesn’t mean they come with “baggage.” Many dogs wind up in shelters because their owners are moving and can’t take the dog with them. The dog was found and never claimed. Adopting a dog was too much responsibility for the owner. And there are other reasons that have nothing to do with the dog’s behavior.

If you desire a purebred or specific breed, don’t be deterred from adopting. Many dogs need adoption, and some rescue groups are dedicated to finding homes for specific breeds or purebreds. That’s how I found my first Cavalier King Charles Spaniel: through the Cavalier Rescue organization.

Purebred Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Well-Bred

If you have your heart set on a purebred dog but you aren’t finding one through a shelter, you want to make sure you’re buying from a legitimate breeder. (Take a look at this PDF from the Humane Society about finding a responsible dog breeder.) Legitimate dog breeders provide quality vet care for the animals, food, and sanitary kenneling.

Many unprofessional breeders are trying to make extra cash but are unwilling to put in the time and money to breed good purebreds. It’s expensive to raise well-bred purebreds, so they cost more to buy. Do your research and use the American Kennel Club (AKC) Marketplace puppy finder for a list of vetted breeders in your area. Ask for references from previously homed puppies from those breeders.

For our second Cavalier, I reached out to every breeder in the state of Virginia from AKC’s list and was pleasantly surprised by how willing and forthcoming the breeders were to give contact info for references, which gave me peace of mind to know our puppy, would not be a scam.

Never Buy A Dog From Craigslist

It’s okay to search Craigslist for dog listings from reputable organizations, but we don’t recommend buying off the site itself. If you think you’re getting a purebred dog that’s well-bred from Craigslist, you’re not. Good breeders don’t need to post on Craigslist. They often have waiting lists and don’t need to search for buyers.

Research The Seller Extensively

If you must purchase a dog online, search the seller’s name and contact information with the words scam and complaint (e.g., John Doe johndoe123@website.com scam) to see if they’re on a puppy scammer list.

Canine con artists are good at what they do, and they’re known for changing their names. So be aware that it can be just as bad if you search their name and come up with nothing.

Ask the seller for references and follow up with those references. Ask them about their experience with the seller.

Meet & Pick Up The Dog Yourself

You should be able to meet the seller and dog in person, visit their place of business, collect all vet papers, and obtain documentation for proof of your purchase. If the seller doesn’t want you to see the dog’s housing, that’s a red flag. You should also always meet a dog in advance to make sure he’s a good fit for your lifestyle. Choosing a dog based on their photo alone is like buying a house and never stepping foot inside.

Don’t Wire Money Or Send Prepaid Cards

You may think you’re “securing” your claim for a dog by wiring a “deposit” or full payment in advance, but, really, you’re getting scammed. Wiring money is like paying in cash, and there’s no way to trace it back. A professional breeder won’t ask you to wire them money and then ship their valuable puppy off to someone they’ve never met.

Breeders care about their dogs and want them to go to good homes. It’s equally vital for you to find a dog that can mesh well in your life as it is for the breeder to find a comfortable home for each dog.

If the seller refuses refunds, that’s another red flag. Legitimate breeders will offer to help if a problem arises — that often includes taking a dog back or finding it a new home.

Puppyhood Is The Best Time To Consider Pet Insurance

Your dog has probably not shown any significant health concerns as a puppy. Since pet insurance companies do not cover pre-existing conditions (AKC Pet Insurance covers them after one year of coverage), the younger your dog is when you sign up, the better coverage you will likely receive throughout their lifetime. Further, pet insurance can help support you financially during the unpredictable puppy years when dogs are more likely to chew on things they shouldn’t and run into dangerous situations. Check out our pet insurance 101 guide to learn more and determine whether pet insurance is worth it for your puppy. Use the quote form below to see what a policy would cost you.

9 Signs Of A Puppy Scam

  1. Prices are too good to be true, or they are negotiable, on sale, or discounted.
  2. Puppy is free if you pay for shipping.
  3. The seller won’t talk on the phone and only communicates through emails or texts.
  4. The only way to get the puppy is to have them shipped to you, and you can’t pick them up.
  5. You must pay by money transfer or prepaid debit card.
  6. There are suddenly more expenses after you make a payment (e.g., shipping insurance, vet bills, crate fees, etc.)
  7. The seller tells you a sad story about why the puppy is for sale for reasons such as family hardship, relocation, or death.
  8. If the seller says something like, “We’re not breeders. Our dog just had puppies, so we’re trying to find them a good home,” that’s a red flag that it’s a potential scam.
  9. The puppy’s photo is in other ads (discovered when you do a reverse image search).

Signs Of A Puppy Scam Infographic

Infographic: Puppy scams

What If I Think Someone Is Running A Puppy Scam?

If you think someone is running a puppy scam, file a complaint with your state attorney general’s office and the Federal Trade Commission. You can also file a report with BBB’s Scam Tracker and file a complaint at PetScams.com

Dog DNA Tests Can Confirm Dog Breed

If you’re concerned about the breed of make-up you want to buy, you could conduct a DNA test on the dog. Many breeders will even do this ahead of time to validate their claims so you can see the results for yourself. We’ve reviewed the Best Dog DNA Tests, including the pros, cons, and more for each test. Another more detailed and scientific option to verify the history provided by a breeder is to get a parentage test from EasyDNA, which promises to show the pedigree of a dog with 99.99% accuracy.

Why Trust Canine Journal

Sadie Cornelius has more than two decades of dog care and ownership experience, specializing in the care and companionship of her beloved Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, including a rescue. She volunteers with the local chapter of Cavalier Rescue and regularly attends dog meet-ups in DC, where she currently lives. Sadie regularly dog sits and understands the personalities of various dogs and dog breeds. She uses positive reinforcement training to build a strong bond with her dogs, emphasizing encouragement and rewards for good behavior. She loves traveling with her dog and taking her beloved fur baby to dog parks, outdoor patios, and other dog-friendly bars and hang-out spots. 

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The information provided through this website should not be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease; it is not intended to offer any legal opinion or advice or a substitute for professional safety advice or professional care. Please consult your health care provider, attorney, or product manual for professional advice. Products and services reviewed are provided by third parties; we are not responsible in any way for them, nor do we guarantee their functionality, utility, safety, or reliability. Our content is for educational purposes only.

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