An advertisement for labradoodle puppies for sale. In the comments, a user points out the image can be found on Google. (Supplied: Facebook)
The online dog-for-sale ad looked trustworthy enough.
- Would-be buyers have lost nearly $300,000 on puppy scams since January
- Puppy scammers place online ads for animals that don’t exist
- Some promote fake courier companies to transport the animals
A 12-month-old Dalmatian needed a new home, because its owners were moving house.
I made contact with the advertiser, introducing myself and my lifestyle, making my puppy pitch to prove that my partner and I would be responsible parents.
At first, the ‘breeder’ asked all the right questions, putting us through the motions to prove our suitability: how would we care for our dog, how would we train him, how often would he be alone?
Then, things got weird.
The ‘breeder’ continued to ignore my questions about their affiliation with any clubs or organisations, and questions about the dog’s parents.
Already offering the pup at what seemed a suspiciously low price, they suddenly offered to throw in a second puppy as well, free of charge.
I would only need to pay for postage.
It is worth noting that reputable breeders do send dogs across the country, and even overseas, but until this point they had not told me they were interstate.
At this point, journalistic rigour kicked in, and I began to sniff out a scam.
Consumer Affairs Victoria shared this sample ad as an example of a puppy scam. (Facebook: Consumer Affairs Victoria)
Puppy scams involve online advertisements designed to trick buyers into paying for dogs that don’t exist.
In many cases, the sellers pretend to be interstate, and ask the buyers to pay transport costs. Sometimes they go as far as to provide details for a fake courier company.
Once payment is made, the seller disappears, and the puppy never turns up.
It is a surprisingly common scam: the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) says it has received more than 600 reports of puppy scams since January this year.
In that time, would-be buyers have lost nearly $330,000 on puppies that don’t exist.
Sussing out a scam
The ‘breeder’ had sent through photos of her pups.
In the seedy world of puppy scams, it is common for scammers to take photos from legitimate breeders’ websites and post them on their own.
I used a tool called a reverse-image search, which checks to see if a picture has been posted somewhere else on the internet.
It is an easy way to see if someone has simply taken a puppy picture from a website and posted it as their dog.
In this instance, the search revealed no matches — but I know savvy scammers can hide their footprints by flipping, cropping or otherwise altering the image so it doesn’t get picked up.
This image purports to be a Dalmatian puppy for sale in 2017, but the metadata shows the photo was taken in 2007. (Supplied)
After striking out once, I continued to look for clues that something was wrong.
Digital images carry metadata that can reveal an alarming amount of information about where and how the photo was taken.
Looking at the data attached to my puppy photo, I could see the photo was taken in 2007.
The final piece of proof that something dodgy was afoot was revealed by the simplest step, and the one I should have taken first.
I did a web search of the ‘breeder’s’ email address, which brought up warnings on a dog website that revealed the scammer was quite prolific.
I responded curtly to the most recent email, telling them I had found them out and they could leave me alone, thank you very much.
Real dogs, fake ads
The trouble with a purchase like a puppy is the internet is the most common place to look.
No-one wants to support cruel puppy farms, and many legitimate breeders use online ad sites.
The ACCC’s ScamWatch has been warning about puppy scams for the past decade, and as online advertising has changed, scammers have moved from traditional ad sites to social media.
American breeders Deer Creek Labradoodles recently found themselves at the centre of a scam, which took off on Facebook and spread through many Australian networks.
A Labradoodle owner takes to Instagram to respond to a scam using pictures of their puppy (Instagram)
The breeders found an image of one of their pups had been used on a scam page, long after the puppy had been rehomed.
Deer Creek Labradoodles was flooded with requests, and took to Facebook to warn prospective buyers about the scam.
“They are taking pictures from other people that have bought dogs and are putting them for sale,” the breeders said.
“The red and white puppy that was first advertised for $400 and then changed to $600 is a male named Otis … and Otis already has a home.
“His family has been notified and are upset about their pictures being stolen and used on that site.”
The breeders have tried to contact Facebook to have the posts taken down, but have been frustrated by the process.
Because of the large number of Australians seeing the fake ad, Consumer Protection WA took up the cause, and the page has since been removed.
So, how do you avoid getting scammed?
Tim Adams from Dogs Victoria, the association representing purebred breeders, has some tips.
Look for membership numbers for breeder associations, which members are required to display.
Look into the breeder and check out their web presence.
“Most reputable breeders are quite proud of their breeding and they’ll have a website, and display images of their dogs,” Mr Adams says.
Endeavour to meet the breeder in person, and meet the adult dogs.
Mr Adams says that is important to check the puppy’s temperament, as well as avoid being ripped off.
“If you do all those things, you very much reduce the chances of falling into an unfortunate situation,” he says.
Many breeders have complained about the difficulty in getting sites to act when scams are reported.
But Mr Adams said protections were getting tougher.
“The laws around this are improving, I must say,” he says.
“We’re actually working with the State Government right now on improving protections for legitimate, responsible breeders so it makes it harder for the unscrupulous types to rip people off.”