Scam watch: beware pug bandits selling pets and accessories online that don’t exist


Prospective pet owners should be careful of adverts for pets from fraudsters, Action Fraud is warning.

Between March 2012 and April 2018, 5,066 people lost money by handing over cash to fraudsters to buy pets or accessories that it later turns out do not exist, according to the anti-fraud and cyber crime agency. 

Victims were swindled out of a total of £3,129,273 in this time period, an average of £40,640 per month.

Action Fraud says the most common animal used in the scam is pug dogs, with 224 reports made. Victims of fake pug scam ads lost £76,451 in total.

Equine accessories are another common hoax product. These products, due to their typically high costs, accounted for 92% of the money lost to fake accessory ads.

As many as 368 reports were made concerning horse box or trailer scams. Victims typically lost around £3,112.

Dogs Trust veterinary director and chair of the Pet Advertising Advisory Group (PAAG), Paula Boyden, says: “We are incredibly concerned about the huge numbers of pets advertised for sale via online classified advertising websites.

“Sadly this trade knows no bounds and we are well aware of the lengths these sellers will go to, to turn a profit, including blinding the public with cute images, fake information and too good to be true prices.

“Education and awareness is key, and we have created – a one stop shop of advice from the UK’s top animal welfare organisations – to help people buy a happy, healthy pet. We advise people visit a pet several times before they take them home – this will lessen the chance of this type of fraud as well as helping reduce the risk of buying from an unscrupulous seller who puts profits over animal welfare.”

How it works

Fraudsters advertise pets and pet accessories online for better-than-expected price to lure victims into sending money via bank transfer.

Often the criminals will claim the animal is located far away, making it impossible for the buyer to visit and see their new pet for themselves.

Fraudsters in some instances then steal more money by telling victims that fees are required to pay for animal travel insurance, documentation and transport cages. The crooks often tell victims these fees will be refunded after the pet arrives.

Criminals will often use online marketplaces such as eBay or Gumtree.

A spokesperson for Gumtree says: “At Gumtree, we take the welfare of animals seriously and work hard to ensure our site is a safe place to rehome pets.

“We comply with the Pets Advertising Advisory Group (PAAG) 18 industry-endorsed standards to improve animal welfare in an ecommerce environment. Last year, we introduced a compulsory paywall in our Pets category, in a bid to deter unscrupulous operators from misusing our platform and discourage the illegal trading of animals online.”

“Our online Pets Advice Hub, which has been developed with guidance from the RSPCA and PAAG, aims to educate users on buying pets safely and responsibly online. We have a dedicated safety team to monitor and regulate our site, but we also actively encourage our customers to report any ad they believe encourages or indicates signs of animal cruelty.

“A full summary of our rules around listing for pets can be found on our website, were we also provide advice on how to buy pets safely on our site and a checklist for potential buyers.”

Tips to avoid a pet ad scam

If you're looking to buy a new pet online then take these precautions before diving in:

  • Thoroughly research any company you find online selling pets. Look for reviews or customer feedback
  • Don't pay via bank transfer, as this is a common way for scammers to part you with your cash. Use approved payment providers such as PayPal or a credit card for extra protection
  • Ask for photos and videos of the animal. If they are unable to produce any or the quality is poor, this is a telltale sign of a scam
  • Only buy the puppy directly from the place it was born and raised, don't accept offers to meet at a midway point between you and the seller
  • Insist on visiting the animal with its mother and littermates where they were bred and reared. Visit the animal more than once before you take it
  • If the offer seems too good to be true, it probably is