CHICAGO -- The coronavirus pandemic presented the perfect opportunity to train a puppy at home, so 16-year-old Jillian Hanna of Mokena, Ill., found an Australian shepherd online last month and her mother made arrangements to buy the dog.
Caroline Hanna said she sensed something was wrong as she traded messages with a purported representative from the business about a puppy named "Kate" with a patchwork coat and mismatched eyes. In emails Hanna shared with the Tribune, she got contradictory answers alongside an assurance that the seller wasn't trying to exploit the pandemic.
But Hanna wanted to believe, she said, so she sent $250 -- money her daughter saved from a part-time job.
"My Spidey-senses were going off," Hanna said. "I should have walked ... and I didn't."
After the emails trailed off and a demand for a refund went unfulfilled, Jillian "cried all night," her mother said.
The Hannas reported their situation to the Better Business Bureau, which says such scams are on the rise as homebound people look for companionship from new pets. Nationwide, the BBB received 371 complaints about dog scams in April, up from 118 during the same month last year, said Steve Baker, a St. Louis-based investigator for the consumer group and former head of the Midwest region of the Federal Trade Commission.
While pet rip-offs existed well before the pandemic, they are among the various scams -- from fake tests and cures to bogus government aid -- that authorities and consumer groups have warned about as fraudsters seek to exploit people's fears and needs during the crisis. As of mid-April, the FTC had taken 18,235 reports of COVID-19-related scams of all types nationwide, according to the agency.
FTC spokespersons could not be reached for comment on the number of reports of pet scams nationwide during the pandemic.
Baker's 2017 report for the BBB on dog scams traced many to Cameroon, where fraudsters set up websites advertising in-demand breeds of dogs at low prices. Often the sites use dog pictures lifted from other sites, and Baker said scammers sometimes copy entire websites from real breeders and insert their own contact information.
"These are professionals. These are organized guys," he said. "I don't think you can do an internet search for a puppy and not come across a scam. It really is that bad."