It only took Karla Russell a few hours to know she had been scammed.
Her daughter picked out a kitten online. Her name was Bella.
"My daughter fell in love with her, and she goes "Yeah, that's the one I want," Russell recalls. "The picture is what got us, so I called right away."
The seller played hard-to-get — asking the mother a series of questions to prove she was qualified — before agreeing to sell the kitten.
He offered to ship Bella on the next flight from Baltimore Washington International Airport. The kitten would arrive in Indianapolis that same night. All Russell had to do was wire $550 in cash to the seller.
Russell was suspicious. After all, she had not met the breeder and had never bought a pet on the internet.
"I was getting a little nervous, and I said 'This is a scam, right?' They said 'No. Relax. We're looking for a flight. Please have all the confidence in the world this is not a scam and you will be receiving your kitten ASAP,'" said Russell, reading a text message conversation she had with the seller.
That's when Russell went to Western Union and wired $550 for her new kitten. Then the text messages stopped.
Bella never arrived.
"At that point, I knew I had been taken," she said. "Bella did not exist. They broke my daughter's heart."
Thousands of victims
A new nationwide study published by the Better Business Bureau says online pet scams are rising at an alarming rate. The BBB says thousands of customers are being scammed every year by con artists who post photos of adorable puppies and kittens.
The BBB says experts believe at least 80% of the sponsored advertising links that show up when users search for pets may be fake.
These are just scams that have great websites, great pictures, and a great story to tell you. Then the string of lies start.
The websites look real. But consumer watchdogs have identified hundreds of online pet sellers that are fraudulent. Their pets -- with cute names like Bobby, Clara, Sunshine, Riley and Zeus -- are simply scams.
The exact same pet photo frequently appears on multiple scam websites.
In fact, months after Russell was scammed by someone claiming to be in Baltimore, we found photos of "Bella" in multiple online ads, claiming the kitten was in Detroit, Atlanta, Boston and New Orleans.
The Better Business Bureau says many of the scam sites actually originate overseas in places like Africa. The report notes that many fake sites have tied back to the country of Cameroon.
Investigators say the people behind the fake ads simply use "spoofing" software to make their phone numbers appear to be in the United States, and they want payment up front.
Once you wire that money, it's gone forever.
Most victims lose $100 to $1000, according to the BBB, but some victims are out thousands of dollars.
"Once it goes outside the country, it's very difficult to trace that and very difficult to get that back,"
"You can pretty much guarantee you won't get it back."
The BBB says many of the fake ads offer breeds that are the most popular and hardest to find.
The non-profit website petscams.com keeps a running list of questionable sale websites, and they tallied which breeds were most popular earlier this summer.
How to avoid the scam
The BBB offers the following tips for online pet buying:
Never buy a pet without first seeing it in person. If a pet seller will not allow you to see the animal before you purchase it, look elsewhere. Reputable breeders and sellers will welcome your questions and be more than willing to allow you to see the animal before you buy it. A photo of a pet is not a pet -- it's just a photo. Insist on seeing the real thing.
Never wire money for a pet. That is a huge warning sign of a scam, and if something goes wrong, you can't get your money back.
Be your own pet detective. Take a close look at the cute photo you see online. Copy and paste the photo into an online image search (such as Google images). If the picture appears dozens of times in multiple places and on multiple websites, the photo may have been stolen from a legitimate website and is now being used to sell a bogus pet that cannot be delivered. Unique pictures that do not show up in an image search are more likely to represent real animals that are actually for sale.
An even safer bet to avoid online pet scams: purchase from a local breeder that you can visit or adopt from a local humane society.
Report a Fake Pet Ad
If you lost money, file a report with your local police department.
File a complaint
FBI Internet Crime Complaint Center
File a Complaint
Better Business Bureau Scam Tracker
File a complaint
Contact Your State's Attorney General
If you sent money using a wire service, contact the company directly as well.
Western Union 1-800-448-1492
Green Dot 1-800-795-7597