During COVID-19, so many people adopted dogs that they emptied local shelters. If you are looking to rescue a furry friend, watch out for scams.

The Better Business Bureau has received complaints of a puppy scam that is targeting people who want to adopt a dog from a shelter or rescue operation, with scammers impersonating real animal shelters or posing as individuals wanting to rehome an animal.

How the scam works

You are looking to adopt a dog, and you find an animal shelter or individual online wanting to rehome a puppy. You message them for more information and receive a convincing, heart-tugging backstory.

In one recent BBB Scam Tracker report, a scammer claimed to be finding a new home for her poodle after a car accident left her unable to care for the dog. In other cases, scammers impersonate real animal shelters.

In this version of the puppy scam, the scammer may not charge for the dog. Instead, they ask for a refundable deposit to “hold” the pup or request payment to ship the pet to your home. Most scammers ask you to pay through a digital wallet – Zelle was mentioned in several reports – or use a pre-paid debit card or gift card. Although this scam mostly involves dogs, it also can include cats and other pets.

After you pay, the problems start. One victim reported driving to the “shelter” to pick up his or her new dog, only to find no such address existed.

“I called, and they texted me that they are coming down with the puppy. I asked them where and no answer,” the victim said. “Finally, after 10 calls, the phone was not accepting any calls. By then, it was quite clear I am not getting the puppy and I’m out $300.”

In other versions of the scam, the con artists offer to ship the dog. But first you must pay for emergency vet visits, additional shipping fees or even a COVID-19 test. The scammers ask for more money to resolve the problem, often promising to refund it after the pet is delivered. They may even claim that the pet will be euthanized if you don’t pay up. Once they’ve gotten your money, scammers disappear. The dog never existed.

Scam prevention

To avoid pet adoption scams:

• Never buy or adopt a pet without seeing it in person. This is the best way to ensure you aren’t caught in a con.

• Do an internet search of the pet’s image. If you find a puppy online, upload the pet’s photo to a reverse-image search. If you find multiple pet adoption sites using the same picture, it’s probably a scam.

• Use money transfers with friends only. Protect yourself from scams by only using money transfer apps for their intended purpose – sending money to people you personally know.

For more information on puppy scams, visit tinyurl.com/4bwduj8y. To report a scam, visit bbb.org/ScamTracker. For more information on scams and how to avoid them, visit BBB.org/AvoidScams.

Steve McFarland is president and CEO of the Better Business Bureau.