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As if the world wasn’t harsh enough, Tampa Bay, we’ve got pandemic puppy scams

Across America and here at home, scammers take advantage of people who go looking online for some puppy love in the time of COVID-19. Oh, and kitten scams, too.

TAMPA – Tiffany Honeywell had long been wanting a puppy, and the current coronavirus crisis seemed like a good time for one.

She and her boyfriend decided on a little bluenose pitbull. She googled a website that advertised a family of pet lovers with breeding experience in New Orleans. Before long, they were sending videos of her soon-to-be pup romping and playing.

“At that point, I was just really excited,” said Honeywell, 27.

They wanted $355 through a payment app and $355 more on delivery. The puppy would see the vet in the morning and be ready to go.

“Do let me know when you have your baby in your arms,” said an email to her. In fact, all their exchanges were by email.

Then someone from the delivery company was on the phone, telling her she had to pay another $855 at the last minute for an air-conditioned crate for a plane trip. When she started asking questions, he hung up and never answered her calls again.

“That’s when I realized this was not real,” Honeywell told the Tampa Bay Times.

“I am so beyond sad that there are people out there that will do this to people,” she said in her report to the Better Business Bureau.

Americans have been taking on new furry family members with a vengeance, hoping for a little happiness during an uncertain time. And where there’s vulnerability, there are scammers poised to exploit it.

The Better Business Bureau got more than 2,000 reports of pet scams in recent months, compared to 700 for the same time last year — often for pets that did not exist or were never delivered.

About 70 percent of the “buyers” lost money. The average amount: $700.

"This seller absolutely played on my emotions and vulnerability,” one victim told the organization. “I’m a highly-educated person, but I never felt so stupid in my entire life.”

Fraudulent websites can be sophisticated. Buyers are quizzed on their vet and their lifestyle. Honeywell was asked what she planned to name her dog because he was currently called Jack, so it should be something similar.

“They were really involved,” she said.

A big hook in cases across the country: the need for that climate-controlled crate and other last-minute expenses.

For Jeanelle Welch in Port Richey, the $750 purchase was for an exotic-looking Bengal kitten named Neri, according to the website.

“I’m like a kid on Christmas Eve,'" she said.

The man on the phone said he wasn’t taking credit cards in the pandemic, so she paid through a payment app. She was told Neri was at the Houston airport, but it was hot, and a climate-controlled crate was necessary. She could buy one for hundreds or thousands of dollars, depending on the size, they said, or she could rent one and get refunded all but 1 percent on delivery. They even asked if she would prefer her refund in cash or a cashier’s check.

Next came an urgent email telling her she needed to purchase insurance for an emergency in the shipping of her kitten.

“Harsh and unpredictable weather brought on by global warming,” was one of the reasons mentioned, she said.

“And I’m like, okay, I’ve been had,” said Welch, who has a master’s degree in chemistry. After she threatened them with the FBI and police, “they all went dark.”

No Neri. Total loss: $2,600. She filed a police report.

“I felt like such a fool once I got calmed down,” said Welch, who has fibromyalgia. “I really got taken advantage of because I didn’t have my wits about me because of my health condition.”

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody encouraged people to report scams by calling 866-9NO-SCAM or going online at MyFloridaLegal.com.

“I hate that consumers are being deceived in this way and not only losing their money, but also their hopes for a companion to brighten their days during these tough times,” Moody said in an email to the Times.

After her experience, Honeywell did research and found a breeder in nearby Riverview. She was able to talk to the breeders and see the puppy. She brought him home. His name is Zeus.

Tips for not getting puppy scammed:

Consider checking out your local animal shelter when you're looking for a new furry family member.
Consider checking out your local animal shelter when you're looking for a new furry family member. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

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