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During the holidays, puppy-dog eyes might be the first step in a scam

BBB offers tips to help consumers avoid paying thousands for a gift they never get

ST. LOUIS — During the holidays, a puppy might be the most-requested present. 

Sellers on the internet may promise to make finding a new best friend easier than ever, but the BBB is warning people that puppies listed for sale online are often just a tool for scammers to find new victims.

Karen learned that lesson the hard way. Her 12-year-old boxer Miss Cassie died in May. She and her husband wanted to fill the void she left behind. They fell in love with a boxer puppy listed for sale on a pet selling website.

"They were breeders, AKC registered, in Pennsylvania," said Karen. "I emailed them up and said, 'I'd like to come out and actually pick out the dog myself and drive home.'"

The "breeders" had a different plan.

"'No no no, we'll have her delivered,'" Karen remembered them saying. "So, that should've been the first clue."

Karen and her husband were so excited that they ended up missing many of those red flags. The dollar amounts they spent in the course of the deal kept rising.

"Even my husband doesn't know. It was only $800, $1,750 for the air-conditioned crate, $1,000 for the insurance," she said. "That's running into thousands."

RELATED: CDC: Outbreak of drug-resistant infections linked to contact with store puppies

Scammers count on the excitement and the fear of missed opportunities to cover up the warning signs. 

"Scammers play on your emotions. So, they're counting on you making a decision very quickly. Or, once you've invested some money, you're going to keep paying," said BBB investigator Rebecca Phoenix.

The BBB said that as much as 80% of sponsored advertising links that show up in a search of pets for sale may be fraudulent.

Karen finally got suspicious when the "breeder" called her to ask for another $2,000 to get the puppy through the airport.

"I called Indianapolis airport and they said, 'We have no live animals here,'" she remembered. "We were absolutely heartbroken."

After Karen realized that she would never get the puppy she paid for, she saw the signs that she missed before. The photo of the puppy that she thought would be hers kept popping up on other pet selling websites.

"One of the biggest red flags for a fake website that a scammer has set up is that they use a picture that you can find elsewhere on the internet. So, we advise consumers do a reverse search on that photo," said Phoenix.

RELATED: Read the BBB's most recent study on puppy sales in Missouri here.

Karen said she told the scammers that she was on to them. 

"They said you'll never catch us. 'We'll keep putting up more sites faster than you can take them down.' All they have to do is get one, two, three people on the hook, then they shut down that website."

It took Karen months to look for a puppy again. She started her search closer to home, with a local breeder who was more open about the process.

"We drove an hour and a half to go pick her up at the breeder. We saw the breeding conditions, we saw the puppies and we selected our puppy."

Now, Karen and her husband have the real deal: Miss Heidi.

The BBB recommends that people looking for puppies from reputable breeders contact their local humane society for help.

The organization also recommends never buying a pet without seeing it in person. Scammers often ask their victims to pay with a wire transfer, so it is safer to use a credit card.

Read the BBB's warning about puppy scams here.

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