With both children having fled the nest and a wife keen to get me from under her feet, I have decided it’s time to find affection from man’s best friend.
Of course, with Christmas around the corner, I am not alone. Interest in owning a dog has surged as a result of lockdown and remote working. Online searches for puppies are up 400 per cent on the same time last year.
Yet looking for a canine companion online is not as easy as you would think – and fraught with danger as I discovered almost to my cost last week.
Adorable: But crooks are using Facebook, top right, to lure in would-be dog owners. Above right, posts from crooks on Messenger
I was initially hooked by the image of lovable labrador puppies offered for free on Facebook via a ‘free puppies for adoption near me’ link. With golden labradors normally costing £1,700, it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. So I thought I would see if I could snap up a canine bargain.
I responded to the link with the comment: ‘Those puppies look gorgeous. Don’t suppose you have any still available?’
Within two minutes I received a reply via online texting service Messenger. It read: ‘Hello thanks for the intrest [sic] you have in are [sic] puppies they are still available and ready to go now’. It asked: ‘Where are you located please’.
Of course, I was suspicious straightaway – grammatical errors are usually a sign of fraudsters operating from overseas. But I continued – now more in the interests of journalism than finding myself a cut-price four-legged friend.
I was soon told a dog was waiting for me in London. A London postcode followed – NW56 8GE – which I questioned as it does not exist. Back came a reply: ‘Ohhh sorry for that it was a mistake. London. SE24 2UZ’. This postcode also does not exist.
After asking some questions about the dog I wanted, I was told I could get a ‘free’ 12-week-old male dog that has had all the necessary jabs and vaccines – against parvovirus (a killer of many dogs) and rabies. Excited? No, because I now knew I was dealing with some pretty unsophisticated fraudsters.
I was then told that before I could pick up the dog, I would have to pay ‘just 250’ – presumably £250 – to process all the adoption documents. They would then email me copies to show that I would then be ‘legal owner of the baby’.
My demands to see the dog in the flesh before committing to a sale were ignored. I was told to pay via an online international money transfer service or use a prepaid Vanilla Visa card that I could buy at any Walmart store.
‘I thought Walmart was based in the US? Is that where you are based,’ I asked. The correspondence abruptly stopped. It seemed the fraudsters knew they had been rumbled. Had I handed over the money they demanded, I am certain I would have received the same stony silence.
I am not the only person to be targeted by such scammers – and sadly some people are so blinded by their desire to buy a puppy that they hand over money. Crime data collector Action Fraud says more than 4,000 people have fallen victim to such pet scams since March. In total they have been tricked out of £1.5million – on average, £375 a fraud. This number is likely to rocket in the run-up to Christmas.
Action Fraud’s Teresa La Thangue says: ‘Criminals are using the pandemic to push this scam. They play on the fact that lockdown restrictions are preventing people from travelling to see the dog they want to buy. As a result, some are willing to pay money upfront. If you cannot go to see an intended pet, ask for a video call where you can view it with your own eyes. If this is not an option, it should raise suspicions. Be patient.’
Reliable: Teresa La Thangue with her dog Boots, collected from Appledown Rescue and Rehoming Kennels
Indeed, La Thangue was tempted by an online purchase in June but after hearing of the puppy scams, she opted for a rescue dog, a lurcher called Boots, collected in person from the Appledown Rescue and Rehoming Kennels in Dunstable, Bedfordshire.
She says: ‘It is easy to understand how people can blindly fall in love with images of adorable animals on a website – and get caught out by fraudsters. Going to a rescue home means fraud is not an issue, while you have the added reward of saving an abandoned animal.’
Such fraudsters are not criminal masterminds, but opportunistic scammers based thousand of miles away – often in India, Nigeria, Russia or the United States.
They demand payment in dollars or via international bank transfer, often using PayPal or Western Union. Spelling mistakes indicate English is not their first language. Another tell-tale sign is that they often have various dog breeds for sale. The one I contacted claimed it also had available Yorkshire terrier, Maltese, pomeranian, cockapoo and pomsky pups. A genuine dealer is likely to trade in just one breed.
British police say they are powerless to tackle this growing army of anonymous online crooks. Although Facebook will suspend suspicious websites, it does not stop the fraudsters setting up yet another scam site.
Details of pet rehoming centres run by charity Blue Cross have been used by fraudsters in their online adverts as pick-up addresses for the non-existent dogs.
Blue Cross says: ‘Fortunately we have been able to expose the crime the moment people call us – and before they hand over any money.’
Dog welfare organisation the Kennel Club also fears the pandemic has made people more irrational when buying a puppy – with more than a quarter of people happy to pay a deposit before seeing a dog.
Bill Lambert, head of health and welfare at the Kennel Club, says: ‘Hasty decisions play into the hands of opportunistic scammers. Dogs can certainly help us through the pandemic, offering a welcome and happy distraction, but you should never buy online without doing thorough homework. The Kennel Club has a data base of assured breeders.’
Pet trading website Pets4Homes points out that puppies are popular with scammers because prices of pedigree breeds have soared in the past year. For example, cocker spaniel puppies cost £740 a year ago but now sell for £2,100, while a Jack Russell selling for £350 this time last year might now cost £990.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals says: ‘Be wary of paying a deposit for a dog without first visiting the breeder. Ask questions – if legitimate they will be happy to help.
‘Request to see paperwork, such as licensing, health checks and vaccination records.’
Frankie Dowling, head of compliance at banking services provider Amaiz, says: ‘Even if you use a credit card to pay a deposit for a dog that does not exist, you will not be eligible for a refund.
‘As you have sent the money willingly, you will not be able to claim money back under section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act.’
As for myself, it looks like Christmas will be spent in my shed getting tipsy on home brew – while flicking through my Frank Sinatra vinyl collection in search of yuletide tunes.
‘Have yourself a merry little Christmas?’ Yes, hopefully, but without any puppy love.