Puppy Scams Show the Best Side of Human Nature

There are two types of people in this world—those that believe in the good in people, and those that think the world is a cruel, brutish place where everyone’s out for themselves and where the worst part of man’s nature is always just this close to gaining the upper hand.

Call it the classic Hobbes-Locke, glass half empty or half full, cynic vs cock-eyed optimist dichotomy: When it comes to our basic understanding of how the world works, it all kind of comes down to this.

I tend to be more on the positive side of the scale—I do give people the benefit of the doubt. I think doing the right thing is a more common default than being a jerk. I also totally bought the Darth Vadar redemption story in Return of the Jedi from the get-go, so this started early in my life. And this week I noticed something that validates my positive outlook: Puppy scams.

It may seem counterintuitive: In my capacity as an observer of the infosecurity landscape, nothing should make me go from Pollyanna to bitter old lady quicker than the latest cynical fraud campaign. But the Better Business Bureau in the States is warning about a scam that shows that the average person is really quite decent-hearted—and that cybercriminals have really gone to the dogs. Literally.

“Fraud in the sale of online pets is on the rise, with scammers victimizing American consumers at an alarming rate,” the BBB said in a new report. “Incredibly, experts believe at least 80% of the sponsored advertising links that appear in an internet search for pets may be fraudulent. In fact, it can be difficult to navigate an online search for a pet without coming across a bogus website.”

Here’s how it works: Scammers, mostly from Cameroon in Africa, are behind these fake sites, which advertise discounted adoptions or sales for popular dog breeds like French Bulldogs, Yorkshire Terriers and Pomeranians (and other animals, like parrots). When someone says they’re interested in a particular animal, the grift begins. They make contact, and explain to the well-meaning dupes that the animals need specialized medical care. They also need to be shipped from overseas. All of that takes money, you know, and before long, the marks are wiring thousands of dollars to the perps offshore via Western Union and MoneyGram. And of course the animals don’t exist.

Now, one would think that a few red flags might go up for most people during this process—you’re going to pay to ship an animal sight-unseen from Africa? Really? But there are hundreds of victims. The BBB said most are Millennials in their 20s and 30s, who on average lose around up to $1,000 in the scams.

One person sent a cool $5,000 to Africa before they realized what was happening.

And while all of this is awful (what kind of sick psychopath looks to take advantage of people wanting to adopt pets in need. Puppies. Think of the puppies!)—I found it oddly comforting that there’s this level of gullibility out there. Also Millennials—aren’t these the people that still live with their parents at the age of 34 and have massive college debt? Yet they’re sending thousands overseas to help animals? If that’s not a bright side of human nature, I don’t know what is (though their parents may beg to differ).

Everyone knows that scammers are savvy and take advantage of whatever zeitgeist is out there. Ronaldo and Messi are always top lures, as is tax season, holiday shipping, the Olympics and political races. Lately the thing has been people stealing hurricane relief donations via bogus charities. Awful, just awful. But it all makes sense—people are more likely to run across or fall for your scam (two for one autographed Berca jerseys, anyone?) if what you’re talking about is broadly popular. So remember, next time you’re dreaming about bringing home a furry (or feathered) friend and feel your heart melting while browsing online—it may be a better idea to hit your local shelter instead.  

Have you registered for Infosecurity North America taking place in Boston, 04-05 October 2017? For the full agenda, speaker list and more information, please visit https://www.infosecurity-magazine.com/conferences/infosecurity-north-america/

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