‘So damaging’: Pet scams increase by 1000 per cent during COVID-19 lockdowns

Ruthless scammers are impersonating businesses amid a boom in pet-related fraud, with industry professionals saying they are powerless to stop them.

According to new data provided to Choice by the ACCC, Australians lost a record amount to pet-related scams in 2021, with the COVID-19 lockdowns exacerbating the problem.

Scammers raked in $4.2 million through pet-related fraud in 2021, an increase of more than 1000 per cent since the beginning of the pandemic.

Two pet-business owners told The New Daily that scammers use their social media images, branding and likeness to defraud their existing customers online.

They said the impersonation is frequent and “so damaging”, with little they can do to stop the heartless scammers in their tracks.

Game of deception

The number of pet-related scams reported to the ACCC increased by more than 500 per cent over the course of the pandemic.

There were 3332 complaints filed in 2021, compared to just 498 in 2019.

According to the ACCC, the majority of scams involved puppies and kittens, with fake listings popping up on “bogus pet sites”.

Carolynne May, a pedigree ragdoll breeder located in Victoria, said multiple scammers have attempted to defraud her customers over the years.

Ms May, who runs Mayflower Ragdolls Cats and Kittens, primarily uses Facebook to advertise when a new litter is born.

Pedigree ragdoll kittens can sell for anywhere between $1000 and $3000, with scammers hoping to make a pretty penny.

She said scammers have used the name of her business and photos of her kittens three times (that she knows of) in an attempt to reel in customers.

A Facebook page popped up in August 2021, named ‘Timmy’s ragdolls’, which claimed to sell kittens bred from her business.

The post included various keywords and the names of other breeders, which Ms May says is a deliberate effort to push their post to the top of peoples’ Facebook search results.

“They’ll just tag anything and everything that they can think of to do with cats, including breeders and things. And all different breeds as well, not just ragdolls,” she said.

“They’ll put any breed that they can think of in the comments. So that when people search up, they see their posts.”

pet scams

Caroline May reported this page to Facebook.

The ‘Timmy’s ragdolls’ account has since been removed from Facebook.

Ms May said there had “definitely” been an increase in pet breeding scams that she’s seen over the course of the pandemic.

Particularly so during COVID-19 lockdowns, when breeders struggled to keep up with demand.

“During COVID [lockdowns], people were desperate for a pet, so they were falling for these things.”

She said she knows of one customer that has fallen for a scam page impersonating her business.

“I had a girlfriend contact me. She goes, ‘Is this your kitten?’ And someone in Brisbane had posted my kitten for sale,” she said.

“It’s amazing what they’ll get up to.”

The owner of a Melbourne-based pet photography business told The New Daily they had a similar experience.

Megan O’Hehir Pet Photography in Melbourne raised the alarm in June when it found an account had been impersonating it and directly contacting its customers.

Ms O’Hehir had been running a competition in which her followers could win a pet photography studio session.

However, just a day after their competition launched, a fake account had begun directly messaging the business’s Facebook followers, directing them to a link.

“This scammer appeared to lift images from our business page, and create a profile with the images,” Ms O’Hehir said.

“They had to misspell [our] account name as it was already in use. They also had to use a personal profile instead of creating a page, for the same reason.”

pet scams

Megan O’Hehir alerted her followers of the crafty scammer.

Luckily, several of Ms O’Hehir’s followers alerted her to the scam within an hour, and she was able to warn her followers and report the page to Facebook.

“We’re hoping to run another competition in the future, but we’ll be making some additional changes to try and avoid scammers ruining what should be an enjoyable event,” she said.

‘So damaging’

Even outside of COVID lockdowns, pet scams appear to be in full force.

Choice and the ACCC said Australians have lost more than $1.2 million to pet scams in the first four months of 2022 – 37.5 per cent more than the same period last year.

Ms May said Facebook needed to do more to hold the scammers accountable.

She said Facebook was coming down hard on breeders on the platform, rather than taking action against scam pages.

“We’re not allowed to sell animals on Facebook,” she said.

“We can post our pictures and things like that. But the minute we put ‘available’ or something like that, we get shut down.”

It is unclear whether Facebook has rules in place to stop scammers from creating fake profiles, or any guidelines in place that prevent the sale of pets on the platform.

Facebook was not able to respond to The New Daily‘s request for comment in time for publication.

Ms O’Hehir said the scammers were “so damaging” for small businesses and their customers.

“Scammers are finding more and more ways to replicate legitimate business pages and scam activity has increased over COVID,” she said.

“It’s disappointing and so damaging for legitimate small businesses.”

How to spot a scam

If you’re looking to adopt a furry friend online, the RSPCA recommends prospective pet owners be cautious of the following:

  • Check the pet’s age: No trustworthy seller will rehome a puppy or kitten before eight weeks of age. At this age, they won’t be fully weaned and will have poor immune systems
  • Delivery can be arranged’: No reputable breeder should be willing to part with their animals without meeting the new owners first. Meet your pet in person before making a purchase
  • Parents DNA tested’: Breeders will often claim their pets have been DNA tested. But unless proof of DNA testing is provided, and the diseases tested for are known to be associated with that breed, it doesn’t mean much. It’s best to research the specific breed you’re looking for thoroughly (including talking to a vet) to help identify what type of DNA testing to look for
  • Limited information: Be concerned if the advertisement doesn’t tell you, for example, whether the animal is microchipped or not; whether it is desexed or not; and how it has been bred or sourced. Lack of information can indicate a dodgy seller who’s hoping you don’t notice the absence of important facts.
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