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Protect yourself from pet schemes during the coronavirus

Pet schemes are spiking because of the pandemic. Many people are home, lonely and looking for a furry friend. Here is how to protect your heart and wallet.

SAN ANTONIO — More of us are spending time at home and feeling isolated as the summer continues. 

While the solution for some is to get a furry friend, the novel coronavirus is also providing the perfect conditions for schemers to take advantage of your heart and pocketbook. It's important to know what to look for before buying a pet. 

Puppies and kitties are hard to resist normally. A pandemic can make them even more tempting.

“We have time. The kids would delight in that. There’s not a lot of joy right now,” said Annie Hardy, who was searching for a Russian Blue cat this week. “It would add joy to our family to bring a pet into the household.”

Getting a shelter pet was not an option for her family.

“My daughter is highly allergic to dogs,” she said. “I am highly allergic to cats. So we erred on the side of considering a purebred animal.”

Instead, her attempt to buy a cat on Facebook was anything but delightful. The Better Business Bureau said it has seen a 20% spike in pet adoption schemes during the pandemic. Hardy fell victim, even though she did extensive research, including talking to people who previous purchased cats from the business.

“I didn’t know how this process went,” she said. “This was the first time I’ve done it and I didn’t have any experience. We were so eager and excited to get a cat.”

She paid a deposit, which is standard. Then she paid for the kitten in full so it could be delivered. When she arrived to pick up the new family member, however...

“They ghosted me,” she said. “They blocked me. They shut down their accounts on Square Cash. They shut down their account on Venmo. They blocked me on Facebook and I think they deleted their entire Facebook account.”

It turns out the business Hardy thought she was dealing with was, in fact, legitimate. However, when she commented on the business’s Facebook page about getting on a waiting list for a cat, it was a person unaffiliated with the business who replied and said she would send a direct message. That message included photos and the message that the kitten was available immediately. 

Hardy jumped on the offer, only to find out later on that the person she spoke to was not connected to the business she found on Facebook at all.

Another popular scheme is to offer a pet for free and just charge shipping costs, but those charges keep increasing.

“When you get notification that you bought a pet and they end up trapped in the airport and they start pulling on those heartstrings, telling you, 'Oh, listen, the dog is needing a new crate. It got damaged. They need insurance to continue their journey,' or, 'They need food'—you'll do anything to get that pet into your hands," said Jason Meza, the regional director of the Better Business Bureau.

Hardy lost $450. She filed a claim with her bank, along with a police report.

“I don’t know if it’s lost forever,” she said. “I don’t know if the bank is going to work with me and the payment providers of Square Cash. I’m not sure how good they are working with people in situations and scenarios like this. We’re going to find out.”

You can lose a whole lot more.

“People usually lose on average between $300 to $2,000,” Meza said. “The medium range is probably $750.”

One suggestion: Reverse-image search the pictures of the pet you are looking at buying before you purchase one online.

“They use the same image across multiple sites,” Meza said. 

You can also protect yourself by seeing the pet before purchasing. The coronavirus can make in-person meetings tricky, so the internet can be a tool to locate a pet before scheduling a physical or virtual meet up. San Antonio’s Animal Care Services allows you to search pets online before interacting with them.

“People can still come and meet the dogs, meet the cats and adopt,” said Alfonso Rios, with Animal Care Services. “It’s just that now we’re basing it on appointment only. Now they have a safer way to adopt.”

Further, never pay for a pet with wire transfers, gift cards or cash apps. Use PayPal or a credit card. Also, know that the pandemic can make even savvy pet shoppers vulnerable to schemers.

“It’s happened to a lot of people. They’re very nefarious. They’re very good at what they do. So do not feel, you know, super, super terrible,” Hardy said. “Even share your story with your friends so it doesn’t happen to them.”

Her search for a pet continues, but at a much slower pace.

Animal breeders and sellers in the City of San Antonio need a license. Ask for that ID number and confirm it with the city by calling 311 before purchasing a pet.

Animal Care Services is also offering a sale on pet during July. All dogs are $15 and cats are $5. Your pet will come with its first round of shots, a microchip and lifetime training.

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