Rescue Scams

This article, authored by Tracy M. Hall, was reprinted through the courtesy and permission of PetPlace.com, the definitive online source for pet news, health, and wellness information

Many people in recent years have looked to rescues for their new furry family member. Adopting a homeless pet is a great way to experience the love of an animal while saving a life. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that over 3500 animal shelters  operate in the U.S. today. Along with shelters, a number of smaller organizations also work to find homes for surrendered animals.

These organizations are often run on a smaller scale than most shelters and volunteers frequently pay the costs associated with rescue. Sadly, not all “rescues” you might see on the Internet or advertised in magazines are legitimate. After interacting with scam “rescues” some potential adopters have found themselves left with misrepresented or sick animals, or sometimes no animal at all. With a few helpful tips, you can protect yourself by recognizing legitimate rescues and avoiding suspicious ones.

What qualifies a rescue as “legitimate”?

First and foremost, the highest priority for reputable rescue and adoption groups is the health and proper care of the animals. Animals placed in rescue should be given adequate food, water, and veterinary care. Trustworthy rescues understand that it is important for the family and the pet to be a good match. They will only rehome animals to households that they deem to be suitable for that particular animal. They will disclose any known health or behavioral issues with potential adopters before the pet goes to their new home. Should issues arise, a reputable rescue will request that the pet be surrendered back to the organization rather than sold or given to someone else. At all times the emphasis is placed on the happiness and safety of the pets. Such is not the case with scammers impersonating a rescue. Their focus is on money, and it is often gained at the cost of the animals.

In recent years use of the Internet for rescue groups has boomed. It’s a great way to get information about rescue groups, view adoptable pets, and even fill out adoption applications. However, it can also be an easy way for people posing as rescues to publicize their name and attract unsuspecting adopters. At first glance it can be difficult to tell if a rescue is the real thing. With pictures of adorable animals and declarations of compassion on every page, it’s not always easy to spot the signs of a scam waiting to happen. However, learning to recognize the red flags can help protect you and your family from fraud.

Knowledge is the strongest defense against scammers posing as rescues. It pays to know what to expect when working with a shelter or other rescue organization. Many rescues will request references, including your veterinarian’s name and phone number, as well as information about your current living situation and experience with pets. If you are a renter, this might include contacting your landlord to verify that pets are allowed in your building. Some rescues require a home visit (a practice common in breed-specific rescues) to ensure that the animal’s needs will be met. You should expect to pay an adoption fee, which can vary depending on several factors including pet type, age, and medical history. Some rescue groups offer transportation of adoptable pets to their new home. This service often involves a separate cost in addition to the adoption fee. Most adoption contracts include a clause requiring that the animal be spayed or neutered if they have not already been sterilized. Reputable groups also reserve the right to take the pet back if you can no longer care for him or her, or to regain custody of the animal if living conditions prove unsuitable.

Deviation from these standards can be a warning sign when determining whether a rescue is legitimate. If the organization is reluctant to provide photos of the pet or information about their personality, is willing to rehome the animal without learning about the potential new home, seems concerned only about receipt of the adoption fee, will not provide documentation of a visit with a veterinarian, or refuses to take the animal back after adoption, it is a strong indication that the “rescue” is not trustworthy. Be suspicious if the animal appears to be seriously ill in a way that was not disclosed by the rescue before the adoption. It is important to note that animals, like humans, can have minor health issues despite having received appropriate medical care. Many shelters, such as the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) Adoption Center in New York City, offer follow-up care for newly adopted pets.

Although no shelter can guarantee an animal’s health, it should be clear that an attempt has been made to identify any illnesses and documentation from the examining veterinarian should be available. A minor illness is not a deal breaker, but not screening for any illnesses should be.

Finally, it’s important to use common sense when evaluating the situation. Don’t rush to dismiss any “funny feelings” or the sense that something isn’t quite right; if something seems out of place, it might be a sign not to proceed. Gail Buchwald, Senior Vice President of ASPCA’s Adoption Center, encourages potential adopters to ask questions and educate themselves. “It’s important to be a proactive adopter,” she urges. That includes things like meeting the pet before adopting them, requesting copies of their medical documentation, and researching the rescue itself before agreeing to adopt. Some adopters resist asking for such information to avoid offending the rescue or seeming rude. In actuality, these types of requests are often considered signs of responsible pet ownership and are encouraged.

One Pet Place reader named Susan Z. (not her real name) can vouch for the importance of following your instincts. She and her husband adopted a mixed breed puppy from a couple whose website initially appeared to belong to a trustworthy rescue. However, Susan soon discovered that things were not as they seemed. When she drove to pick up the puppy she had fallen in love with on the computer screen, she was presented with a dog of a different mix and gender than the one she was expecting. Despite her reluctance, she was struck by the tiny puppy’s poor condition and took her home. Susan’s vet revealed that her new puppy was sick with several easily treatable illnesses and weighed half what her veterinary records claimed. It took several weeks for Susan and her husband to arrange a meeting with the couple to return the puppy. By that time they had grown too attached to surrender her. Today the Jack Russell mix is a much-loved family member, but Susan remains concerned about the potential for other adopters to fall victim to the same “bait-and-switch” scheme.

What do you do if you think you have fallen victim to an adoption scam? First, assess whether or not your state’s cruelty statutes apply in your situation. Each state has its own definition of and punishment for animal cruelty. If your case falls within your state’s definition, ASPCA’s Gail Buchwald recommends filing a first-party complaint with your local animal control or cruelty prevention agency. The ASPCA also provides links on its website where you can report fraudulent activity to the Internet Crime Complaint Center and the Better Business Bureau. Sharing your story can also help prevent others from falling for the same scheme.

For animal lovers, the plight of a homeless pet is often too much to ignore. Just one look at a furry face that needs love and many of us become easy marks. It is crucial to note that the overwhelming majority of rescue groups are legitimate and provide a valuable service to the pet community. Over 4,000 pets each year find loving homes through New York City’s ASPCA Adoption Center, and that’s just one location! Compassion doesn’t have to mean gullibility, however. By staying educated and proactive you can recognize and avoid rescue scams. Keep these tips in mind the next time you are considering adopting a pet, and help support one of the many legitimate rescues existing today.

The author would like to thank Susan Z. for sharing her story as well as ASPCA’s Gail Buchwald and Mark Knight for their assistance during this article’s research.