You’re in the market for a furry new friend! You’re getting all starry-eyed thinking of that small, wet nose, those big, dreamy eyes, and those happy, frisky barks. And the online ad you’ve seen for an adorable little puppy makes you believe that dream is well within reach—and well within your budget.

Before you start stocking up on doggy biscuits, take a big step back. The internet is full of pet scams targeting future pet owners and milking them for money once they’re already emotionally invested in their new furry friend. These scams may be difficult to spot until the victim is in over their heads, and with no way to get their money back.

Pet scams include nonexistent animals for sale by private “sellers” or bogus pet adoption websites offering pets for sale at crazy-low prices.  In both circumstances, eager buyers are lured into dropping loads of money on extra costs, like shipping and insurance, while being promised an adorable new pet at a bargain price. All fees will be collected via wire transfer or prepaid debit card, and will need to be paid in full before the “pet” is shipped.

Of course, there is no pet and the entire process is a scam. The criminals will make off with the victim’s nonrefundable money and the cute little puppy the buyer fell in love with online will never show up at their door. Often, the scammer will continue finding new excuses to collect money from the victim, including ridiculous charges for the shipping crate or food costs for the animal. The victim realizes that they’ve been scammed and tries to pull out. However, at this point, they may be out thousands of dollars with nothing to show for it but an empty checking account.

Protect yourself from pet scams by approaching the potential purchase of a new pet with these ground rules:

  • Don’t agree to wire money for a pet purchase or to pay via prepaid debit card. Instead, ask if you can pay with a credit card. This way, you’ll have purchase protection and a way to back out of the transaction if the deal goes sideways.
  • Don’t send money for a pet purchase before you actually see the animal in reality. Anyone can find an adorable picture of a puppy online and post the animal for sale.
  • Be extra wary of an out-of-town or long-distance seller. It’s best to work with a local seller so you can exchange the money and the animal in person.
  • If you’re desperate for a new pet, but you don’t want to get scammed, consider adopting a pet from a local shelter instead of buying one off a private seller. These tend to cost a lot less and you won’t have to pay for shipping fees. Also, you’ll be dealing with a reputable nonprofit organization instead of working with an anonymous seller you don’t know you can trust.
  • Dig up any information you can about the seller before agreeing to the purchase. Ask for their full name, phone number and street address. Do a quick online search to see what the internet is saying about them. If you can’t find anything, the name and address are likely bogus. If they’ve tried selling with this name in the past, your search might turn up negative reviews, which should serve as an obvious warning signal. If possible, ask for names and numbers of past buyers you can use as references.
  • Be extra wary of offers of “free” pets. They may be a trap to lure you into paying steep “shipping” and “insurance” fees for an animal that doesn’t really exist.

Proceed with caution when purchasing a pet over the internet. If you’ve verified that everything checks out, and you’re careful throughout the process, you can have your new furry friend and your money, too.

Have you or anyone you know been the victim of a pet scam? Share your story with us in the comments!