Canine con scams family out of new best friend

Vicki McKenzie had been looking for a four-legged friend for her 11-year-old daughter, Océane, who has been in a wheelchair most of her life after suffering strokes as a newborn.

Better Business Bureau says puppy scams on the rise during COVID-19

Vicki McKenzie holds her daughter Océane in this photo from 2018. The family says they were recently swindled out of their $300 deposit by a fraudulent puppy seller. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

A western Quebec woman is warning others to beware of potential puppy hustles after her family was scammed out of hundreds of dollars by an online seller.

Vicki McKenzie had been looking for a new companion for her daughter Océane, 11, who is in a wheelchair after suffering strokes as a newborn.

"People don't know how to play with her because she doesn't talk. She can't run with them or skip rope," said McKenzie. 

"It meant a lot to us to have something like [a dog] for her."

After sitting on a wait list for a service animal for more than four years, the L'Ange-Gardien, Que., family decided to find a dog they could train themselves.

Since the SPCA has temporarily closed its doors because of COVID-19, the family moved their search online.

$300 deposit lost

It was Mother's Day when the family thought they found their perfect match on a Labrador Retriever puppy.

The ad Vicki McKenzie replied to. (Supplied by Vicki McKenzie)

After texting back-and-forth with the seller, the family felt everything checked out and e-transferred them a password-protected $300 deposit.

But the seller then claimed they never received the money, McKenzie said, and became progressively more aggressive in follow-up messages.

"Océane spent the whole day crying inconsolably," she said.

In an email to CBC News, said that while they "regret" the fact McKenzie lost her deposit, they do suggest on their website that "buyers and sellers meet in person and should inspect living conditions prior to purchasing." said it has processes in place to filter out scammers, including validating email addresses. The company said it did remove an ad for Labrador puppies after receiving a complaint, and the ad was only listed for about a day.

"Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the buyer to do their due diligence prior to sending any money to a stranger," the company said.

Puppy scams skyrocket

Puppy scams are a booming business right now, according to the Better Business Bureau with Canadians losing out on at least $6,000 in the past three months — although the real figure is likely much higher.

"You always have to be a little suspicious," said the bureau's Jessie St-Cyr. "That's sad to say, because when you're a good intentioned person, you don't think people are going to take advantage of your situation like this."

WATCH: How to avoid pandemic puppy scams

Jessie St-Cyr, with the Better Business Bureau, offers this advice for avoiding puppy scams during the pandemic. 1:15

She said while people should never buy a dog without seeing it first, physical distancing rules related to the COVID-19 pandemic are giving scammers new avenues to hide behind.

According to St-Cyr, there are some red flags to watch for:

  • Purebred dogs advertised well below their normal value.
  • Buyers asking for added payments for things like insurance, a heated crate or vet bills.
  • Requests that sellers pay by wire transfer, gift card or bitcoin.
  • Recently created websites, particularly ones launched during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the McKenzie family plans to restart their search for a new companion — and has some words of wisdom to prevent others from falling victim to similar scams.

"If you find an opportunity and it looks great, pause [and] give it 24 hours," said McKenzie. "Because I think, had I done that, I would have noticed some odd behaviour."

WATCH: Realizing they'd fallen for a scam

Vicki McKenzie describes what it was like to believe she had finally found a canine companion for her daughter Océane, who is in a wheelchair — and how devastating it was to realize it was actually a scam. 2:37

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