It starts with a photo — a big, doe-eyed close-up — of a kitten or puppy.
To many, the price seems impossibly low for that promise of fluffy affection.
That's how to hook a buyer, and unscrupulous scammers know it.
The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre (CAFC) has logged 247 reports of pet scams in 2022 so far — a loss of about $217,453. In 2021, they say 507 victims were bilked for a total of $701,175.59.
Jeff Horncastle, acting client and communications outreach officer at the CAFC, says scammers take an average of $1,100 per victim.
"They're playing on victims' emotions and in a lot of cases, people are looking for companionship," said Horncastle.
Pet scam losses reported 2019-2022
Jessie St-Cyr, a communications manager for the BBB, says they've seen an uptick in the number of people caught in this scam since 2017.
"It's a type of scam that we've noticed increased during the pandemic, obviously, because people were home and they had the time to take care of an animal, whether it was a dog or a cat," she said.
In 2020, the BBB Scam Tracker tallied more than 4,000 reports of fraudulent pet websites. BBB is releasing updated figures on Dec. 6.
Thomas Murray's beloved long-haired rescue cat Hamish is dying of feline AIDS. So Murray — who lives north of Barrie, Ont. — said he's been looking for a kitten, to both cheer Hamish up and help Murray weather the anticipated loss.
When he saw a gorgeous Scottish fold kitten on Kijiji, he fell in love. But he got suspicious when the seller wanted to meet him at a Walmart parking lot in Scarborough — quite a ways from the Mississauga locator on the seller's email address.
"I thought that was weird," said Murray. After he questioned the initial meeting place, the seller offered to meet him at a "friend's" house about three kilometres away from the Walmart Supercentre mall.
When Murray showed up there, nobody he asked knew anything about a kitten for sale. It was clearly a scam.
"Basically, they just wanted me to show up at the mall and rob me, I guess," Murray said. "I am kind of wary now."
Many would-be pet owners are reeled in during holidays or gift-giving seasons, but "it happens all year long," said St. Cyr.
The modus operandi is usually the use of beautiful pictures of baby animals, which are often stolen from legitimate breeders. Or a site might include a heart-breaking story about animals needing re-homing or vaccines — but this is often spin.
"It's a scam. It's sad. People get attached to the animal even before adopting it," said St-Cyr.
How to spot and avoid a pet scam
CAFC estimates less than five per cent of victims report fraud to the agency.
Horncastle says it's worth reporting scams — even failed attempts — as the CAFC collates the information so investigators can search it for use in investigations of repeat scammers.
Here are some tips to help you avoid being duped:
Is the animal "free," or is the price otherwise too good to be true? Then it's probably fake.
Do a reverse image search of the animal, and see if it shows up on other sites.
Legitimate breeders have wait lists and do extensive interview with buyers.
Use a credit card to pay. Never wire transfer.
Never send money without seeing the animal, at least by video chat.
Demand a video chat to see animals or buy locally, so you can visit in person.
Opt for a local animal shelter or breeder, if possible.
Jenny Dean of Floppycats.com blogs about her ragdoll cats in Kansas City, Mo., and helps people sift through what's a real cat for sale and what's a scam.
"I remember the little girl inside of me who was so excited to get my first kitten. I cannot imagine how I would have felt if I had been scammed, and how devastated I would have been," Dean said. "Getting a kitten should be a joyful experience, not one where you are left feeling fooled and out of your hard-earned money."
Hannah Chaffey of Billings, Mont., says her grandmother, who lives across the state in Missoula, was excited earlier this month about buying a Balinese kitten to replace a beloved Siamese cat that died.
But Chaffey, who is a graphic design student, noticed that something on the website her grandmother was dealing with seemed "off."
So Chaffey checked it out with Dean, who began offering to verify sites for people after images of her cats were stolen and used by scammers.
The Balinese kitten site turned out to be shady. But at least Chaffey caught it before her grandmother submitted her credit card information.
"She'd given them her whole story about her previous Siamese cat and how much she loved him," said Chaffey.
"And they still were just going to go ahead with scamming elderly people, because that's just apparently what they do."