The most essential items of 2020 might have been N95 face masks, but not far behind were cute little designer puppies.
As the coronavirus lockdown shuttered the nation, slimming Britain’s leisure industry right down to “long walks near your home”, demand for puppies peaked spectacularly. By June, dog welfare organisation The Kennel Club warned that one in four prospective owners were spending less than two hours deciding before buying their new puppy, and the BBC reported that the average price of a pup soared from around £900 to £1,900.
Inevitably, puppy scams became rife, varying from cruelty cases – where unscrupulous breeders raised puppies in horrendous conditions – to straight up deception, with fraudsters using the pandemic as cover.
HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS SPENT ON FAKE PUPPIES
One family in Cornwall – having paid £1,800 for a Kennel Club-registered golden retriever puppy in “impeccable health” – drove ten hours to collect it from a London address, only to find no one there. "I feel incredibly stupid, to say the least, and should have known better,” said the buyer. “I started out at 3.30AM from Cornwall to London, went to the address, which was a real address, but obviously no person of said name."
Fraudsters even fleeced buyers for multiple payments, according to Action Fraud. A spokesperson told VICE World News, “They use COVID-19 and lockdown restrictions as a reason why the victim cannot come and see the animal first, and [say] they have to put down a deposit. After the initial payment, more and more funds will be requested to cover insurance, vaccinations and even delivery of the pet.”
These fraudulent ads are often the work of organised criminal gangs, who use female and male voices in their communications with prospective buyers to appear to be a “family” of breeders. They involve phone calls, real addresses and pictures and videos of available puppies.
According to Action Fraud, demand for investigations into this kind of puppy scam was nearly eight times higher than last year. This June there were 835 reported frauds, involving £326,933 worth of rip-offs, compared to 108 reported frauds in the same month last year (costing victims £60,409).
The UK’s largest pet sales site, Pets4Homes, blocked 40,000 adverts in just five months during the first national lockdown, either because the ads looked dodgy or the breeders didn’t look reputable. The breeds most commonly used in fraudulent ads, they say, are Staffordshire bull terriers, Pomeranians, labradors and golden retrievers.
PUPPY DIED AFTER BEING BORN WITH ITS BRAIN EXPOSED
Like many new pet owners, Love Island couple Molly-Mae Hague and Tommy Fury proudly showed off their new Pomeranian puppy on Instagram. Weeks later, Mr Chai had died after a sudden fit. An autopsy showed “Chai's skull wasn't fully developed (and) part of his brain was exposed”. This meant any bump might be fatal.
The death exposed the complications around unregistered breeders and supply and demand. The benchmark of quality in the UK is whether or not a breeder is Kennel Club Assured, meaning they have been certified by the organisation as prioritising the health and welfare of the dogs in their care.
Even though Tommy and Molly-Mae’s puppy had been bought through Cheshire-based business Tiffany Chihuahuas & Pomeranians, which is licensed by Cheshire Council, it was not a licensed Kennel Club breeder, and the dog had actually been shipped over from Russia.
Following the news of his death, the owner of Tiffany Chihuahuas & Pomeranians said, "Mr Chai was a healthy dog. I only work with trusted people and have a small network of reputable breeders who care for their dogs to the very highest standards and see animals as part of their family.”
Aggressive breeding practices can cause birth defects in puppies. In one instance, a vet in Crewe discovered a puppy with ocular problems so severe it lost both of its eyes. The puppy, Pickle, is now recovering in a new home.
While many pet sites ban them, lockdown demand led to an increase of foreign breeders advertising in the UK. The number of licences issued for the commercial import of dogs more than doubled from 5,964 (June to August, 2019) to 12,733 for the same three-month period this year. An RSPCA spokesperson said those arriving from abroad may have been bred in poor conditions, leaving them with potentially serious medical and behavioural problems.
“Although breeders from countries like Romania are licensed, we have no way to check the conditions those animals are being kept in,” they warned. “Sales like these could be fuelling cruel puppy farms, as well as exposing puppies to long and stressful journeys.”
BREEDERS USING TECH TO HIDE THEIR LOCATION
In April of 2020, the British government passed Lucy’s Law, which banned the “commercial third-party sale” of puppies and kittens in England, meaning you can now only buy them direct from a breeder, or adopt from a rescue centre. However, overseas puppy smuggling is a persistent risk to unwitting UK buyers and puppy sites alike.
Brought in by car, van or lorry, in August charities warned of puppies being sold to buyers in supermarket car parks and motorway service stations, as breeders without a UK address completed their trades.
Pets4Homes told VICE World News that they had been forced to set up a 24/7 reactive team to fend off a lucrative market of puppy smugglers, who illegally import dogs into the country, often from Central and Eastern Europe. “These breeders often use a VPN to disguise their true location, and match IP addresses to genuine UK postcodes,” said Lee Gibson, the site’s UK Commercial Director.
To save customers from themselves, the site introduced a safety deposit system, meaning no cash could reach a breeder until a healthy puppy was produced.
But the problem isn’t going away. The site now has to cross-check IP addresses to prove vendors behind adverts live in the UK and at the address listed on their account. They have also blocked more than 40 percent of all adverts this year, with attempts to place fake or misleading adverts increasing by over 300 percent compared to 2019.
Similarly, a spokesperson for pet sales site Puppies.co.uk said they had seen an “exponential” growth in dodgy adverts, and are removing around 200 per week. Like Pets4Homes, the biggest growth area was cancelling fake picture profiles. “If the same image of the litter is also showing on a post from 2015 in America, you can bet your bottom dollar it's a scam,” said a spokesperson.
Unfortunately, soft sentencing means these criminals see arrest as “an occupational hazard”.
An RPSCA spokesperson said, “Too often, the puppy dealer is based in another country, where they are sadly beyond the arm of the law. Penalties for fraud and proceeds of crime are tougher than those for animal cruelty – HMRC managed to recoup over £5 million from fraudulent puppy dealers over a four year period.”
While lockdown restrictions have temporarily eased, the puppy scam peak might not yet have passed. Earlier this year, Eileen Jones, a rescue coordinator at Friends of Animals Wales, warned that puppy farmers were already “breeding from any dog with a heartbeat” in readiness for a Christmas rush.