- South Africans are being swindled en masse by online puppy scams.
- The average victim losses R17 000 by the end of the scam. One person lost R375 000 when trying to buy a Golden Retriever.
- Experts say international organised crime groups are behind the scams.
- For more stories, visit the Tech and Trends homepage.
South Africans are being robbed blind by online puppy scams. These scams are allegedly often operated by international organised crime groups.
People in the market for a puppy are visiting attractive websites, where puppies are listed at a below-market rate and where they are often available instantly. The catch? Customers never receive a puppy after placing their order. This is often only where the scam begins.
Mari VeOlivier, who runs a sophisticated Facebook group that raises awareness and to report puppy non-delivery scams, said that the scams are run by international organised crime groups.
"We are not dealing with a guy around the corner that is selling an ordinary scam. We are dealing here with organised crime, we are dealing with syndicates."
She said the average person who approaches the group having been scammed has lost in the order of R17 000, although this amount varies highly.
The scams are not just a South African problem as similar scams operate in other countries around the world.
The worst case that VeOlivier has heard of in South Africa was of a woman who paid R375 000 to scammers when trying to buy a Golden Retriever that she never received.
VeOlivier said the scam ruined the woman's life.
There are many others who have been in similar situations.
The Puppy Scams in South Africa Facebook Group has 5 500 members. These members often join the group just after being scammed or nearly being scammed, said an admin of the group that News24 is keeping anonymous.
VeOlivier said this is the tip of the iceberg. The Facebook page gets up to 56 000 users visiting it per month, she said.
Pascale Midgley, the general manager of the Kennel Union of Southern Africa (KUSA), noted many reports of the scam in South Africa.
Over the past three months, we received reports almost on a daily basis, some days as many as five complaints," she said.
The scammers know that buying pure-bred dogs from breeders is expensive and that many people may not want to be on the waiting lists that normally apply when going through breeders, said Midgley.
So the scammers create official-looking websites, often using KUSA's branding to claim that they are KUSA-registered, where dogs are advertised at cheaper prices than they are available elsewhere and with the promise of rapid delivery.
READ MORE | Pet ownership in SA rose during the pandemic, and it’s fuelling the R7.1 billion pet goods sector
KUSA do not actually register breeders, but they do allow their members to voluntarily register litters with them. The scammers still try to use KUSA branding for legitimacy, which KUSA opposes.
The scam sites also have deals available such as "buy one puppy, get 30% off a second".
Communication with clients is made over WhatsApp or email as the scammers want to be able to hide their accents, so that it is not obvious that they are not from South Africa, said VeOlivier.
Once the scammers receive payment, VeOlivier said that this is when the next scam starts. The scammers will often concoct a bogus reason for why they can't deliver the puppy that requires you to give them more money.
Midgley provided details of how this often works:
She said that the amount the scammers get "is dependent on how long they can string the poor victim along". This usually ranges between R5 000 and R100 000, said Midgley.
"We have received reports of very sad situations where emotional blackmail has been used and persons have paid as much as R50 000 to cover transport costs," she said.
Who let the dogs out?
Both Midgley and VeOlivier said international organised crime is often behind these scam operations.
"It's not a South African syndicate, but it is an international syndicate that is active in South Africa," said VeOlivier.
An anonymous source, who spoke to Carte Blanche on the topic in 2019, who represented Artists Against 419 (AA419), the biggest reporting centre for scam websites in the world, which specialises in identifying and closing down fake websites, was quoted as saying that the scams started in Cameroon.
News24 could not independently verify the existence of puppy scamming syndicates, but evidence that the same people may be behind many of the scams comes from the contact details listed on the websites advertising the puppies.
AA419 keeps an online repository of websites that are confirmed to be running pet scams. Many of the websites that have been found to be a scam by AA419 have other websites that have formerly been listed by AA419 as being fraudulent.
Midgley said that when a website gets shut down, scammers often start up another similar-looking site, with a new name and URL.
Midgley said the scams are "possibly run by a syndicate of people", who have become increasingly "brazen" in more recent times.
There are a number of red flags that people looking to buy a puppy online should watch out for.
Firstly, Midgley said people should be concerned if a website is selling multiple different breeds of dogs.
"Often, on these websites, if you look at them, it's like a shopping list. It's almost like dogs are a commodity and you can order them. 'Ok I want a Yorkshire Terrier and I want a Boxer'. These websites have a whole range of breeds that are available. That should ring warning bells already," she said.
"Can you imagine the type of breeding operations that they would have to have to have all of these dogs available?"
She said it was also a concern if the puppies seem to be "on tap" from the breeder. There are generally waiting lists for puppies as breeders only hand over a puppy when they are an appropriate age.
Furthermore, a blog post on the Pet Hero website said scammers won't care if the buyer is a suitable fit for the puppy and reputable breeders often do. Scammers will not care about the puppies' future well-being.
If the price of the puppies is substantially below what is being asked for elsewhere, that should always raise suspicions.
The puppy scams in South Africa Facebook community is providing resources to help consumers avoid scams, report scam pages, and guide victims of scams through the proper process once they have been scammed.
The Facebook page has a team of volunteers who investigate potential scam websites and report them to AA419.
Only once AA419 has added a scam site to its database will a post be made declaring that a puppy selling website is a scam.
News24 will not disclose how they investigate the sites as this information could be used by scammers.
There is no affiliation between the puppy scams Facebook group and AA419. The Facebook group just reports the incidents to them.
Here is what VeOlivier said people who have been scammed should do immediately afterwards.
The first port of call is to report the fraud to your bank.
Scam victims must open a cybercrime case with the police.
VeOlivier said people are often reluctant to do this as they assume that nothing will happen after opening a case with SAPS.
Finally, victims of puppy scams can fill in report forms available on the Facebook page to provide information about what happened with the scam to the volunteers on the group, which is then passed on to other authorities.
Puppies should never be bought online, said Midgley.
People should insist on seeing the puppies and their parents in person at the premises where they live, to verify that they are real, healthy and being kept in good condition.
Keshvi Nair, the spokesperson for the National Council of Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NSPCA), said that in addition to visiting the premises where the puppies live in person, people should demand the medical records of the puppy and the parents, and ensure that they went to a proper veterinarian.
The NSPCA's preference is that dogs are adopted - but, when people go the breeding route, then proper processes should be followed.
If people visit the dogs in person and find evidence of mistreatment of the dogs, they should reach out to their local SPCA to disclose what they saw, said Nair.
This is the right thing to do, even if someone bought dogs from an unethical breeder and feels guilty.
VeOlivier said puppy scams are just one manifestation of non-delivery scams.
She said that she actually runs four Facebook pages dedicated to non-delivery scams.
"They scam people with everything that they don't have to deliver," she said.
But scamming people using puppies is a particularly sinister manifestation of non-delivery scams because it pulls on people's heartstrings, claimed VeOlivier.
She said people struggle to accept that they will not be receiving a puppy, even when they know they are being scammed.
"A puppy is an emotional purchase. You don't think with your head."