So far, 669 people have lost a combined total of £282,686 in March and April, after putting down deposits for pets they have seen advertised online.
The adverts that victims have responded to were posted on social media, general online selling platforms and also specific pet selling platforms.
The criminals posting these ads never have any animals to sell and will ask victims to put down a deposit for the pet to secure the purchase.
They use the outbreak of Covid-19 and the current lockdown restrictions as a reason why the victim cannot come and see the animal first, or pick it up. After the initial payment more and more funds will be requested to cover insurance, vaccinations and even delivery of the pet.
Action Fraud has received reports of this scam from people all over the UK with a spike in reports occurring in April when 524 reports were recorded – more than three times the amount received in March.
Pauline Smith, head of Action Fraud, said: “The fact criminals will even exploit an international crisis, such as the one we find ourselves in now, to take innocent people’s money is especially cruel.
“But, unfortunately, as we spend more time online, and are forced to adapt to a new way of life, opportunities will arise for criminals to commit fraud.
“During these unprecedented times, it may seem quite plausible that you should have to pay a deposit for a pet and that you wouldn’t be able to see the animal in real life first.
“However, we would encourage you to think carefully before you transfer any money – do you know and trust this person?”
To help protect yourself from scams like this:
Do your research – Before purchasing anything online, including pets, look up reviews for the site, or person, you are buying from. If you’re still not sure, ask a trusted friend or family member for their advice.
Trust your instinct – If you can’t physically go to see the animal in person, ask for a video call. If the seller declines, challenge them on why. If you have any suspicions, don’t go ahead with the purchase.
Choose your payment method wisely – If you decide to go ahead with the purchase, avoid paying by bank transfer as that offers you little protection if you become a victim of fraud. Instead, use a credit card or a payment service such as PayPal.
An RSPCA spokesperson said: “Unfortunately we’ve investigated many criminal gangs who are willing to exploit animals in order to make a quick buck and now, during this time of international crisis, they will be trying new tricks to cash in and con the public.
“We’d urge anyone thinking of getting a new pet to think long and hard about whether they can properly care for that animal, not just now but into the future when restrictions are lifted and their lifestyles become more busy.
“If people do decide now is the right time to get a pet, then we’d always urge them to consider adopting instead of buying an animal.
“We still have thousands of animals in our care at the moment and have restarted rehoming some animals in England with strict measures to keep our staff and the public safe.
“Anyone who is concerned about a breeder or seller should walk away and contact the local council and RSPCA on 0300 1234 999.”