Updated January 3, 2021
30 seconds. That’s how long it took me to find a fake puppy being sold on Gumtree. Even I was surprised how easy it was.
If you’re buying a puppy online, you need to know how many scammers there are out there. Why don’t you hear more? Just like other internet scams, embarrassment stops people talking about how they got tricked.
I think it’s possible to spot a scam, and even easier to spot the warning signs of a possible scam. I want to share my knowledge and experience.
How To Buy A Puppy Online Safely
First, there’s a vital message that you must follow for this to work:
Do not be emotional. That’s easier said than done! However, scams work because our defences are weakened by desperate, sad or cute stories. You still have to apply the same diligence you would to any purchase. If you can’t do it alone, get a friend to help.
Please also remember that many good, reputable people have terrible online skills and may look like scammers at first. Go about your investigations with respect. In all your questions and requests, act like a caring, trusting pet-owner-to-be.
So here’s how to spot a scam…
Know How To Spot Dodgy Sites
More organised breeders usually have websites. However, anyone can build a website. So what makes a more trustworthy one?
- Look for country-specific addresses (“.com.au” in Australia). These are much better regulated (and more expensive) than just “.com”
- Put the address into WHOIS Lookup and check the name and location of the holder. Here’s what happens for walkervillevet.com.au.
- Inspect images on the site (see how below).
- Then just read the site and make sure it sounds legitimate.
- Lastly, select a section of good-sounding text and paste it into Google with quotes (“…”) to look for it being copied from elsewhere.
If they don’t have a website, be more suspicious. Here’s what to do next.
This is my favourite part, and where you can usually trip them up. You can use images from their website, but you should always ask for more pictures of the puppy. What’s more natural than that?
If the puppy is real, it should be a snip to send you a whole bunch of photos of the same animal. If they can’t supply any, I would be very, very wary.
Once you have the images, there are three ways to analyse them.
1. Filename Check
The filename should make sense. You can view the filename under File Explorer (Windows) or Preview (Mac, like this example). This image was sent to use as ‘proof’ of ownership of a lost puppy we had in the clinic. So why on earth would anyone call their puppy “staffyxridgeback5-1-1”. Such a cute name!
Read more about how Dr. Sky prevented this puppy theft here. Of course, filenames are easy to change, so let’s look at other forensic tools.
2. Reverse Image Search
This is how I found the scam-in-30-seconds from the beginning. Right click on any images and download them. Then go to images.google.com and upload them. Here you can see the search results I got.
This shows the picture was taken from other sources online, and therefore cannot be a real puppy now. Reverse image search doesn’t always work. Social media images won’t always show up in Google searches, and images can be doctored to fool Google by flipping, cropping or filtering.
Metadata is the extra information your camera or phone adds when it takes the picture. You will be astonished (and possibly scared) by what it can tell you.
To find out how, Google “view image EXIF metadata” for your device. For example, on my Mac all I need to do is open the picture in Preview, go to Tools and select “Show Inspector”. Now look at the example from our website below. The first one shows all the image EXIF data, such as date, time, device etc.
The second one shows the GPS data. Yep, that was our Adelaide address (we’ve moved since). It’s important to state that I did not include this information deliberately.
Metadata is removed from images on social media or Gumtree (and can be removed manually) but it should be looked for on website or emailed images. Most photos taken with a smartphone will contain it. If it’s there, it should roughly agree with what you are told. If it’s not there, it’s a red flag.
Research The Ad
If everything is checking out, now copy a selection of text from the ad and drop it into Google, again with quotes (“…”). If anyone has posted this exact ad before, it should come up. This could either be because the person uses the same ad repeatedly, or because someone who was scammed has posted of their experiences.
Research The Breeder
Also search Google using the email address in the ad and the breeder’s name for an idea of any possible problems. However, bear in mind there will always be some people with grievances, but the majority should be positive. Check that there is a physical address for the breeder that you can verify. If they have a business name, you can search this in the state register too.
If they say they are a registered breeder, you should be able to cross-check this against breeder lists for each state. Here are the NSW breeder lists, but bear in mind these might not always be up to date.
More recently, registration is becoming mandatory in Australia for all breeders, not just pure breeds. From July 2018, breeders in this state must supply their registration number and personal details. Once the law is in place in your state, it will be up to you to check the number they supply is accurate.
Australian quarantine laws make importation of dogs very expensive and very difficult. If the breeder claims to be bringing a dog from outside of Australia, it’s almost certainly a scam.
Check The Documents
Most well-bred pets come with vaccination, microchip and vet history. It’s a smart idea to ask to see copies of these, even if you’re just wanting to know more about the puppy. These should all make sense with times, dates and places. Puppies in most states must now be microchipped for sale. Read here how to check the registration of a microchip number.
Call Or Drop In
Get the seller’s phone number and ring them. At least then you know they really exist. During the conversation, say something like, “I’m going to be in Sydney for work this week, could I come and meet the puppy then?” Even if it’s impossible, you can always back out later.
You want to hear how they respond. I can see no good reason why anyone would refuse to meet you. In fact, if they care about where their pups go they should be relieved that they get to check you over.
Do Not Ignore Warning Signs
Finally, is this all just a ruse so I finally get to play my favourite clip from my favourite movie?
Too many people have their hearts set so firmly on a puppy that they explain away all the little discrepancies. That’s why they are so embarrassed afterwards.
Most scams aren’t done by smart people. Take for example the one I found: a price that’s too good to be true (money would have been requested for freight), a fake-looking picture and spelling errors.
What About Shelters?
Many people reading this will ask: why not just get a puppy from a good shelter? There are two answers to this. First, whether you agree or not, many people have their heart set on a certain breed. And second, even if you want to use a shelter, it’s not that easy.
Apart from RSPCA and Animal Welfare, you still need to check them out. That’s because many scams also pose as loving shelters, often looking for payment for shipping or other needs rather than an outright puppy price.
In conclusion, nothing beats a face-to-face encounter with a good shelter or breeder. When this is possible, it’s almost always the best way. When it isn’t, I hope I’ve given you enough to stay suspicious and avoid the hoaxes.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These blogs are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!
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