Over the last few years we’ve seen a rise in bad actors using the internet for illegal activities, and we see it in our work. Every single day we stop more than 100 million harmful emails from reaching our users, and we routinely work with law enforcement to combat nefarious actors. But across the web, people are caught in romance scams, loan scams, and investment scams every day — and older Americans are often the most vulnerable.
Raising public awareness can help people avoid becoming victims. But for more emergent illicit behaviors and scams, lawsuits are an effective tool for establishing a legal precedent, disrupting the tools used by scammers, and raising the consequences for bad actors. That’s why last December we used our resources to file a lawsuit to combat illegal activity in the botnet industry and have used legal action to defend small businesses from scammers masquerading as Google. With these actions, we establish legal precedent to help stop similar cyber threats and scams.
Today, we’re building on this work by taking legal action against an actor who was operating fraudulent websites and using Google products as a part of their scheme. The actor used a network of fraudulent websites that claimed to sell basset hound puppies — with alluring photos and fake customer testimonials — in order to take advantage of people during the pandemic.
This type of scheme follows a similar script to many online scams where malicious actors pretend to be someone they are not to convince victims to give them money for something they will never receive. The Better Business Bureau recently announced that pet scams now make up 35% of all online shopping scams reported to them, and this particular scam targeted people at their most vulnerable, just as the pandemic led to a record spike in people wanting to own pets. (According to Google Search Trends, searches for “Adopt a Dog” spiked at the start of the pandemic as people spent more time at home. By the end of 2020, 70% of Americans reported owning a pet.)
Sadly, this scam disproportionately targeted older Americans, who can be more vulnerable to cyberattacks. The FTC and FBI report that older people are scammed out of an estimated $650 million per year.
That’s why we’re taking proactive action to set a legal precedent, protect victims, disrupt the scammer’s infrastructure, and raise public awareness. Of course, legal action is just one way we work to combat these types of scams. We build our security into all of our products and use machine learning to filter new threats, and our CyberCrime Investigation Group investigates misconduct and sends referrals to various law enforcement agencies including the Department of Justice to combat nefarious actors engaging in a wide range of scams including pets, covid relief, romance, and tech support scams.
Here are some additional steps you can take to help spot a pet scam:
- See the pet in person (or on a video call) before paying any money. This way, you are able to see the seller and the actual pet for sale. More often than not, scammers won't comply with the request.
- Use verified payment methods. Avoid wiring money or paying with gift cards or prepaid debit cards. And before you pay, research prices for what you’re looking to purchase. If someone is advertising a product at a deeply discounted price, you could be dealing with a fraudulent offer.
- Reverse image search. Search to see if the item or product is a stock image or stolen photo. Using Google Chrome, place the cursor over the photo and right click, then choose the option “Search Google for image.” If that picture shows up in a number of places, you’re likely dealing with a scam.
- Search online for the seller. Ask for the company name, number and street address. See what Google search results pop up. If you can’t find anything, the name and address are likely fake.
We will continue to work with federal and state agencies and law enforcement to ensure our consumers are better protected from fraud online.