Coronavirus puppy scams ‘seemed legit,’ ensnared dog lovers amid pandemic: Illegal Tender podcast

Everyone has had a different quarantine experience, and many people coping through the pandemic saw a golden opportunity to bring home a new puppy. 

But for the unsuspecting and unlucky, the quest for a dog ensnared them in a scam. Many only found out after a deal had been brokered with an alleged breeder and they had paid for a dog that wasn’t real. 

Season six of Illegal Tender explores the underground world of online puppy scams through conversations with two victims of such scams and one industry watchdog who points out the potential red flags associated with buying a dog online, sight unseen. 

Episode two is a conversation with Elanore, who is a twenty-something student in the U.K. studying biomedical research. 

Her search for a chocolate Labrador retriever started in June. Elanore’s a dog lover, but it’s been over two decades since her family has owned a dog. Her father recently beat COVID-19 and the dog’s arrival to their family would be a major cause for celebration. 

Elanore found a Facebook page for chocolate Labrador puppies and quickly started communicating with a person she thought was a breeder. After days of correspondence and a deposit sent via PayPal, it occurred to Elanore that the whole thing was a scam when she was about a mile away from the address provided to her by the breeder.  

Stephanie Asymkos: This is Illegal Tender, season six. I’m Stephanie Asymkos. In our last episode, I mentioned Elanore. I shared that she’s a student who lives in the UK. Her search for a dog started in June and abruptly ended just days later after she drove 300 miles to an address given to her by a so-called dog breeder, and there was no dog. And she sent hundreds of dollars via PayPal to someone who now wasn’t replying to calls or texts. Here’s our conversation.

Elanore: I’m Elanore. I’m 27 and a biomedical research student. I live between Cambridge and Darby in the UK. 

SA: Talk to me about what happened.

E: So me and my family, we decided we wanted a puppy. My dad’s been unwell recently, he suffers with bad knees. He’s waiting for knee replacement surgery. He’s also had COVID of which he was hospitalized for with his other illnesses over the past 12 months. So he’s been suffering pretty badly with his mental health. And so we just decided to start looking for a puppy. We knew what kind of breeds we wanted. We wanted medium-sized dogs, something like a Labrador. I found these absolutely beautiful chocolate Labradors on a Facebook group. Just started communicating with people that have them advertised. And it seemed really legit. They weren’t too keen on meeting purely because of COVID and they wanted to keep contact to a minimum. We decided to keep all the correspondence electronic.

However, we arranged a date to go pick the puppy up and did all the necessary puppy shopping. We drove three hours to an address that they’d given us. And it was actually a cat sanctuary and there was no puppy and we’d paid a deposit over PayPal. Luckily it was protected thanks to the protection that PayPal provides. We’ve managed to get the deposit that we put down. But no puppy. It’s had a pretty big impact on my dad’s mental health. I think it’s also had an impact on my mental health, as well. I was very much looking forward to getting a puppy. To give you an idea, we’ve not had a dog in the house in about 23 years. It was quite a big occasion.

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SA: When you said you got into this Facebook group, was there anything about the Facebook group that looked off or wonky to you?

E: We’ve been looking all over for puppies that we liked. And at least here in the UK, transactions occurring through Facebook are quite common. So we thought, it’s just the modern way, I suppose? The people who advertise on Facebook and like I said, our correspondence with them all seemed quite legitimate that they were saying that they were supplying quite a lot of things with the puppy. So they were supplying travel, their travel cage, they were supplying some toys, a non-spill travel water bowl, a blanket with mum’s scent on it. Things the puppy would have already been used to try and make the travel and the relocation a bit easier. And we really liked that. It was all above board to us. It felt like they were, I wouldn’t say going out of their way to make it the best possible experience they could, but they were going to try and help us as much as they can. 

SA: How many emails or messages did you swap back and forth with these folks?

A puppy in a medical mask in Kubanskaya Embankment on May 30, 2020. (Photo by Igor OnuchinTASS via Getty Images)

This is part two of Yahoo Finance’s Illegal Tender podcast about the puppy crimes of quarantine and online puppy scams. Listen to the series here.

E: It must’ve been about 20 or 30.

SA: Over what length of time?

E: About two days.

SA: That’s a lot of back and forth. You felt like there was definitely a live person on the other end of this, right? Like someone you’re just texting back and forth. Like someone’s answering you in real-time basically, right? 

E: Yeah.

SA: You said nothing was really off about it. You said that you wanted to meet the puppy in advance, but I guess they gave that oddly convenient excuse of COVID and we’re not going to have any type of interaction in advance. Did that seem plausible or did that raise a red flag?

E: Obviously because of the pandemic situation, it’s a legitimate point. Keep contact to a minimum. We live in the modern age where we have video calls and such where we can have correspondence over the internet. So yeah, it seems legit.

SA: Did they promise you any additional pictures? 

E: They sent us pictures of which there was one of the chocolate Lab puppies with two adults and one I’m guessing to be their children in the picture. And then a picture of the puppy on their own. It was the same puppy, in a garden setting, just the trees behind him, on some grass. And it just seemed legit. It just looked like someone’s backyard garden, you know?

This is part two of Yahoo Finance’s Illegal Tender podcast about the puppy crimes of quarantine and online puppy scams. Listen to the series here.

SA: Yeah, just pictures of three beautiful little puppies in it. So you’re texting or messaging back and forth with these people over the span of two days, how quickly did they ask you for money?

E: It was towards the end of the second day, we paid the deposit. To give you an idea, it all happened over a space of four days. The initial messaging was over two days. And then we paid the deposit and then there was a day with no correspondence. So on Sunday, when we went to pick up the puppy, obviously we messaged them and we were like, “we’re about 30 minutes away from you.” At which point they messaged back. We didn’t read the message straight away. When we did get around to reading the message, it said, “sorry, there’s been a holdup with paperwork. We’re unable to meet today.” At which point we are literally like half a mile away from the address that we’re meant to be collecting the puppy from. We were like, “well, we’ve traveled three hours and we’re not going to leave without a puppy.” 

SA: And you told them, “Hey, it’s Sunday, I’m coming to get this dog,” right?

E: Yeah. I’m like, “why didn’t you message us earlier that day, if it wasn’t going to be possible for us to pick the puppy up, instead of having to travel three hours?” We arrived there and it’s a cat sanctuary, no puppies. We spoke to the people there and they told us we weren’t the first people that have arrived that weekend. And they’ve had quite a long list of people that have arrived to look for that puppy. 

SA: Cats are ok, I guess? But if you’re there for a dog, a cat isn’t going to be a substitute or an inappropriate one. 

In the States, sometimes breeders and particularly dog shelters, they want to know a lot about the owner. They want to know how many hours a week you work. How often will you be home? Do you have a fenced in yard? Is there going to be a dog walker? Did this person, I’m not even going to call them a breeder cause they’re not, this thief, ghost, did this person ask you about your setup and lifestyle?

E: They did ask us a few questions. They asked whether we had any experience with dogs in the past, which my dad has. And my mom has, as well. I mean, I was only a baby the last time we had a dog and then they asked us whether someone was going to be home all the time to look after a dog of which, because of my dad’s disability he’s not working and I’m currently finishing off a degree so I’m at home pretty much all the time so I could take the dog out. We told him we’ve got an acre of land that the dog couldn’t just run around in freely and do whatever he wants. He said, “that’s great and we want our puppies to go to good homes.” The typical things that you’d expect to hear from a legitimate breeder.

SA: It’s like this person just grabbed the script of what a dog breeder or a dog shelter placement person would say. Just so you would feel better or give this patina legitimacy. They knew exactly what to say to make you feel better. When did all this go down?

E: This literally happened last weekend. 

SA: Oh gosh. It’s so fresh and new. I’m so sorry. You guys are the cat shelter or the cat sanctuary. They say you’re not the first people that have been here and then you just drive around to go home? 

This is part two of Yahoo Finance’s Illegal Tender podcast about the puppy crimes of quarantine and online puppy scams. Listen to the series here.

E: That weekend was initially planned for me to move from Darby back to Cambridge. I was going to move back on Saturday and then we found this puppy and you can pick up on Sunday. Darby is halfway in between Cambridge and Manchester. So we were in a pretty good location to take a trip up to Manchester, grab the puppy, go back to Darby, and load my things in the car. It was going to be a little bit hectic because we hadn’t planned it, but it seemed that we could do it and it would have saved on travel expenses.

It’s pretty fresh still. It is only less than a week. It just seemed so convenient as well. We’d been looking for a puppy since before my dad had COVID, so we’d been looking for about six or seven weeks. This just seemed to conveniently appear.

SA: I wonder if your internet browser history probably filled with puppy cookies and then that probably populated your Facebook targeted ads.

E: I actively searched. I was initially going through and looking for dog or puppy orientated pages in the UK. And I just seem to stumble across the wrong one.

SA: So you’re on your way home everyone’s bummed. Understandably. How quickly did you reach out to PayPal and ask for a reversal of that charge? Actually, could you explain the deposit that you put down and what was the total. You can use pounds. 

E: So the deposit £200.

SA: That seems a little cheap. 

E: The total amount was £600. You get some puppies that are cheaper than that. You get some puppies that are more expensive than that. It’s a perfectly reasonable price.

SA: I don’t know much about the dog market game and I’m not really up to date on what the dollar to sterling is these days. I don’t know if £600 pounds is reasonable for a purebred chocolate Lab. 

E: Maybe it would be around about $800. 

SA: That’s expensive. But I don’t know if that’s just the going rate for dogs. 

E: We’ve found some puppies as cheap as £350 to £1,500. So it’s in that middle range where you think it’s a perfectly okay price.

SA: To recap, not only was this person sort of reading off of this script of I know exactly what questions to ask, but I also know the perfect price point where it’s not too low, that it’s a little shady and it’s not too high that I’m going to turn people off to this operation. So you contacted PayPal?

This is part two of Yahoo Finance’s Illegal Tender podcast about the puppy crimes of quarantine and online puppy scams. Listen to the series here.

E: Pretty much instantly. My American housemate Wayne was with us and he was absolutely raging. I’m sitting in the front of the car, my mom’s driving, and I’m having to roll cigarette, after cigarette, after cigarette because I am absolutely mad. Wayne, my flatmate asked for the iPad and he got onto PayPal to get it sorted. 

We contacted PayPal within like five minutes of leaving the cat sanctuary and that was sorted pretty quickly. We were also put into contact with someone else who had the same problem. One of the people who ran the cat sanctuary had contact with other people that had the same scam and the lady at the cat sanctuary put us in contact with them over Facebook because we said we don’t know how we’re going to get our money back.

That was quite a worry. And they were like, well actually someone else who’s had the same issue managed to get their money back from PayPal. It turns out that the other person had been told to collect. So the other person who was told to collect from the same addresses we had, but there was another one where they had been told to collect from Liverpool, which is about another 40 miles away from Manchester. I know of three of us who have fallen from the same scam. I do know that the Facebook group has now been taken down. Thank God.

SA: Was it you who reported it to Facebook or was it another person who was also scammed?

E: I didn’t report the group because I was on my iPhone and I was in the car and I was really frustrated and I couldn’t work out how to do it. I was on their [Facebook] page and everyone who was commenting on dogs, I was going through and replying to them that it’s a scam. I literally spammed that like 50 times. Then I was going to report the group when I got home when I got my Mac in front of me to use the desktop version of Facebook. When I got back to my place in Darby, it had already been taken down.

SA: It’s all terrible, but it does sound like swift action was taken at each turn. And PayPal and Facebook did do right by you and the others who were sadly scammed. You got your money back from PayPal. The Facebook group was taken down. So more people can’t be scammed, but not to be a cynic, but this makes me think of the game Whack-a-Mole. You bop one and another pops up. Or like a Hydra’s head. You take down one and five more proliferate and grow. 

So this happened on Sunday and we’re chatting on Friday. Are you still planning to get a dog?

E: We’ve got a few more leads. One of them particularly has come through a friend of a friend. So it’s a lot more trustworthy. I fell in love when I saw that chocolate Labrador. This isn’t a chocolate Labrador. It’s a crossbreed is a Mastiff cross Labrador. And it’s not 100%. My dad likes it. Well, I should say my dad likes the pictures of the mom and dad because the puppies aren’t born yet. But for me, it’s not exactly the dog I wanted. I fell in love with a chocolate Labrador, but the chocolate Labrador just didn’t exist.

SA: So what are you thinking now? Are you going to hold out for that chocolate Lab or are you gonna let your heart open to love a Mastiff / Lab? 

E: It’s going to be my dad’s dog so ultimately it’s his decision. It’s down to him and I suppose I would just have to learn to love it.

SA: Since you’ve been burned, how are you wiser this time around?

This is part two of Yahoo Finance’s Illegal Tender podcast about the puppy crimes of quarantine and online puppy scams. Listen to the series here.

E: I’m not gonna fall for the whole, “we’re not going to meet prior to picking the puppy up because of COVID.” As soon as I hear that, I’m going to be like, nope, not interested. I won’t be putting a deposit down before seeing the dog in the flesh. 

We’re in contact with the breeder. We know she’s legitimate, as I said, she’s a friend of a friend. Our friend has brought the dog off of her in the past. She’s supplied us with her registered breeders’ license number because in the UK, you can’t breed dogs without a license. If you breed over a certain number of dogs each year, then you’re meant to be registered with your local council. And she’s given us registration details for the local council. So at least in that aspect, we know 100% who she is because she’s registered. And she’s spoken through the process. 

The puppies are meant to be born on the 3rd of July, and then they’re going to spend at least eight weeks with mum before we can pick them up. The fact that she’s spoken through the process of this is what we’re going to do that kind of puts us at more peace of mind. I suppose it was probably the one thing the scam left out, you know? Yes, they told us the dog’s been microchipped, had his initial vaccinations, but we never got information like when it was born, the age, you know? That as a whole has made us feel a lot more comfortable.

SA: It feels like the dog was really symbolic for you and your family. You mentioned that your dad’s health wasn’t great. It’s incredible that he’s on the mend from COVID, that’s incredible. And I’m just really happy for you and your family. It sounds like maybe by the end of this summer, you guys will have a little puppy again. After long last a puppy will return to you. Do you have any names? 

E: We’ve decided we want a female puppy. I think we’ve all decided on probably a female Marvel character. We haven’t really decided yet, but Gamora is quite high up.

SA: Especially for a Mastiff. That really personifies it.

E: Gamora is quite high up the list. There are a few other names that aren’t Marvel, but I think I’m fighting a losing battle.

Stephanie is a reporter for Yahoo Money and Cashay, a new personal finance website. Follow her on Twitter @SJAsymkos.

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