Pet Adoption Scams: How to Spot and Avoid Them

Hundreds of thousands of pets go up for adoption each year, but some of those animals you see online might not be adoptable at all. In some cases, you might be looking at dogs from puppy mills disguised as rescues, while other animals’ photos might be stolen from a loving owner who shared them online without knowing someone stole their pictures.

Supporting animal rescues and adopting animals is a deeply emotional process, which unfortunately opens the possibility for malicious individuals to prey on the hopes of others and steal money from them. To differentiate between the good rescue folks and the cruel people who will emotionally manipulate you into sending them hundreds (or thousands) of dollars for a sick or nonexistent pet, here’s how you can avoid pet adoption scams:

How Adoption Scams Work

There are many different ways individuals and “organizations” scam people who just want to add a new lovable pet to their families. Sometimes these are puppy mill breeders disguised as compassionate animal rescuers, other times they’re just heartless people sitting behind computers with no animals at home, stealing photos from other people to bait animal lovers into sending them money.

Here are some signs of a pet adoption scam:

  • They offer a sob story (pet from a high-kill shelter, family abandoned her due to financial or relocation reasons, found on the streets, etc.) and rush you into making a decision to “save” the animal as quickly as possible.
  • They refuse to offer specific/honest information about their rescue organization, the veterinarians they work with, or the pet’s medical and behavioral history.
  • They ask you to send payment via Western Union, MoneyGram or online (usually to an office located in another state or even country).
  • They don’t offer a phone number, website, or social media page where you can find more information.

Research the Rescue Beforehand

The most important thing you can do to avoid a pet adoption scam is by researching the person or organization beforehand. The International Pet and Animal Transportation Association publishes a list of known pet scammers to keep consumers informed, but it’s impossible to keep track of all of them because they’re constantly creating new email addresses to avoid detection.

If you’re able to meet the animal in person, then that would be your best bet, as long as there are valid veterinary records to prove the animal is in good condition. If you’re adopting from afar, then Google the organization to see what others are saying about it. Typically, legitimate animal rescues will have either a website, Yelp page, or a social media page (Facebook is most common).

If there are no followers on their pages and their website is devoid of any useful information (such as adoption success stories, non-stock photos of adoptable pets, contact information beyond a free Gmail or Yahoo email address, or information about the rescue’s nonprofit status), then proceed with extreme caution.

Request Multiple Pictures

Scammers love stealing other people’s photos of their cute pets and using them to attract potential adopters who will send them money. If there are no photos at all and the organization refuses to send you any – insisting that the animal is great, but they can’t send photos for X reason – then don’t bother trying to adopt with them.

One great way to avoid a potential adoption scam is by requesting multiple pictures of the animal. Try not to do this unless you suspect it might be a scam (if your research turned up little information about the organization), because legitimate rescues are busy saving animals and may not have time to fulfill all of your requests. However, an individual or organization with little to no online presence necessitates additional photos to ensure they’re authentic rescues, so ask for pictures with specific objects (tennis ball, crate, food bowl) or in specific places (outside, in their crate) to make sure they’re not just stealing photos from other people online because they don’t actually have the animal in their care.

Be Wary of False Urgency

 If an animal is already with a rescue and safe from a high-kill animal shelter, then there shouldn’t be a reason to rush people into adopting. A genuine rescue would be more concerned about finding the right person for the animal, not hurrying just about anyone to pay the adoption fee and take the dog or cat off their hands (presumably to “make room for more rescues”).

Anyone who promises to ship or give you the animal immediately after payment should be viewed with suspicion unless you’ve already established that they’re legitimate through your research.

Don’t Pay Online

If you can avoid paying the adoption fee before you see the animal in person, then this is the best route for avoiding a scam. Scammers oftentimes request an upfront deposit – even if you barely know anything about the animal – which lets them get as much money out of you as possible before moving on to their next victim. If you’re asked to pay online with a debit card, through Western Union, or send them cash – don’t!

Use a Credit Card

Most credit card companies have significant protections in place for their cardholders. By offering to pay for your new pet’s adoption fee with a credit card, you’ll be able to dispute the charges later if it turns out to be a scam. Don’t be tricked into sending preloaded cards or cash until you know the organization you’re working with is legitimate and you’ve seen the animal in person (whenever possible).

Beware Surcharges 

One of the most common techniques scammers use to get more money out of interested adopters is creating “problems” that the adopters must pay for. When the organization is not in your area and the pet must be delivered, the scammer will likely ask for more money to help pay for the shipping charges, an expensive new crate (“to protect your pet during her travels”), and even pet insurance.

To avoid being scammed, get the terms of the adoption fee in writing before you make any payments. If they end up asking for more money anyway, then report the organization because they’re likely trying to scam you.

Concluding Thoughts on Adoption Scams

Pet adoption scams are unfortunately common nowadays, especially with the availability of online platforms from which scammers can prey on pet owners’ emotions during the adoption process. By doing extensive research beforehand and hearing about other people’s experiences with the organization you’re considering adopting from, you should be able to avoid wasting time and money with someone who cares more about themselves than actually helping animals.

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