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WESTERLY — If you are planning to add a furry family member in the coming months, local police are advising that you meet the animal in person before providing any form of payment.

Westerly police are urging would-be pet owners to slow down and meet the pet or seller after a series of recently reported frauds in which out-of-state victims paid a fee, only to find that there was no dog when attempting to meet up with the purported seller in Westerly.

“In each case, the victim had made an electronic payment of $400 and were asked to meet up at a given time at a Westerly address,” Police Chief Shawn Lacey said. “When they arrived, they found there was no dog and were forced to leave empty-handed.”

Authorities were first notified of the scam last week, Lacey said, after a resident of East Brunswick, N.J., called Westerly police to report that she may have been the victim of a pet-sale scam.

Lacey said officers spoke with the 21-year-old woman and learned she had made a down payment, but was told by an elderly resident at the agreed-upon address that he did not own any dogs and was not selling puppies. The police spoke with the man, a longtime Westerly resident who they said has been very cooperative, and learned that someone had also knocked on his door on Sept. 11 with a similar request.

The victim in the Sept. 11 case has not been identified, the police said.

Two days later, Lacey said the department took a complaint after a woman from Springfield, Mass., reported paying $400 as a deposit on a Yorkshire Terrier puppy, only to arrive at the same address as the previous victim to find a sign on the 72-year-old Westerly resident’s door informing her this was a repeat issue and to contact the Westerly Police Department.

The sign was placed at the door to help the man avoid needing to tell excited would-be owners he did not have a puppy for them, the police said.

The police took a similar call on Friday, with a man from Toms River, N.J., stopping in at the department to report he had also paid $400 online for a golden retriever and arrived in Westerly to find the sign on the man’s door.

All three of the known victims had brokered their deals using forums on either Masslive.com or NJ.com, two sister sites that offer a wide range of user-generated news and information services.

“In every case, the scammer sent these people to the same address. Each deal was reached through text with a cell phone using a 401 area code and the payments were made using various pay apps,” Lacey said. “We don’t believe there are any local victims, but we are trying to get the word out to help protect anybody who may fall victim to this kind of scam.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, law enforcement agencies nationwide have reported a drastic increase in the number of puppy and other pet scams.

According to the Better Business Bureau, which provides an online tracker to determine location-specific information including dates and nature of different scams across the U.S., pet scams resulted in thousands of dollars in losses in July.

The BBB has received a total of 1,681 reports of pet scams through June and July, up from a previous high over the same period of 583 in 2019. The organization also notes that in the past few months, the number of overall pet scams comprises approximately 25% of reported scams.

“These increases truly make sense when pet adoptions and pet-related purchases are booming during the pandemic as well. Legitimate online pet supply retailer Chewy, a BBB-accredited business, is seeing record revenues,” said Paula Fleming, chief marketing and sales officer for the BBB in Boston. “Animal shelters across North America are seeing their animals being adopted out and fostered at record rates. Some shelters even have waiting lists, something unheard of not long ago.”

The Westerly-based scam is a little more straightforward than most. In many of the cases reported to the BBB, victims were told that they needed to send money for special climate-controlled crates, insurance and a non-existent COVID-19 vaccine. There also were several instances where the consumers wanted to see or pick up the animal but were told that wasn’t possible due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Both Lacey and Fleming said families considering buying a dog or other pet should never make a purchase without first seeing the animal in person, should avoid wiring or using any cash apps or gift cards to make a purchase, and should always research prices in advance to avoid surprises used by scammers to catch victims off guard.

Lacey said if the seller avoids allowing an in-person meeting before a payment is made, then the offer is probably true good to be true.

“We just want people to be safe, to do their research and to make sure they have the knowledge needed to protect themselves,” Lacey said. “It’s a heartbreaking experience for victims, and one we would like to help them avoid.”

If you think you have been scammed or have found a suspicious website, report it to BBB Scam Tracker and the Federal Trade Commission. For more information on this and other scams, visit bbb.org.

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