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Cruel scammers are exploiting Brits’ love of animals and desire for company amid the coronavirus lockdown by selling them fake pets through online adverts.
Reports of animal scams tripled in April to 524 cases across the UK, according to Action Fraud. There has been a surge in people looking for puppies and kittens as they spend more time at home and may be seeking companionship.
But criminals are exploiting the fact buyers can’t visit and collect animals in person during lockdown, and are instead sending them photographs before persuading them to part with their money for pets that never materialise.
In the last two months, 669 people have lost a collective £282,686 after paying for pets they had seen advertised online but never received, Action Fraud has revealed.
In some cases, fraudsters are using the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions not only to exploit victims for an initial payment, but to con them out of additional money by asking for the cost of insurance, vaccinations and delivery.
HuffPost UK has learned that, in one case, a victim bought and paid for a cat before being informed there would be a delay handing it over because the seller was in hospital with coronavirus.
The person who notified the victim claimed to be from The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. But when the buyer called the college back, it became clear the scammer had simply stolen the vet’s name and workplace as a cover.
In another case, someone bought a puppy online and paid a deposit. They were then contacted by a courier company which said there would be an additional £850 delivery cost because of the coronavirus outbreak.
The victim attempted to contact the seller to ask for a refund but could no longer get through to them.
Detective Superintendent Alex Rothwell from City of London Police, which hosts the national Action Fraud reporting centre, told HuffPost UK: “We know that criminals are adaptable and they will use every opportunity they can to defraud people. We have to be prepared for them to exploit every angle of this national crisis.
“People are living their lives in unusual circumstances and are at home on their computers more, searching for things to buy, and are often making purchases without being able to see what they are buying in person.”
Google searches for “buy a puppy” soared by 120% in the month after lockdown and “adopt a puppy” saw a rise of 133% in online searches.
Rothwell told HuffPost fraudsters are using the lockdown as an excuse for not allowing customers to visit or collect animals in person.
“The majority of reports we are getting are about online shopping scams where people are ordering items and the goods are simply not arriving,” he said.
“Unfortunately, scammers are playing on the emotions of people wanting to buy pets during the lockdown and are using the Covid-19 pandemic as an opportunity to explain why people can’t go to view the animal first as they would in normal circumstances.
“Instead, criminals are showing people photographs of animals that they don’t actually have to sell. After they have paid the money, the animal never materialises and they can no longer get hold of the seller.”
He added: “Criminals are often posting these fake ads on social media or using social media to direct people to fraudulent websites.
“We are all vulnerable to fraud in different ways and fraudsters have the ability to target people in specific ways – one of which is exploiting their love of animals.”
Pet scams have been reported to Action Fraud from all over the UK, with a spike in April when 524 people were targeted by the fraud – more than three times the number reported in March.
Rothwell said he didn’t want to scare people at a time when many are already anxious, but urged: “Think before you click. Take five minutes to consider if what you are thinking about buying is something you can verify from a different source before you divulge information or make a purchase.
“While it is perfectly plausible you can’t see an animal in person during the lockdown, you can ask for further evidence that they have the pet such as a video call. If you feel any doubts, don’t go ahead with the purchase.
“It is also worth remembering that if you pay with a credit card, there is some consumer protection that comes with that.”
Anyone who believes they have been the victim of a scam can contact their bank or financial institution, and report it to Action Fraud on 0300 123 2040.