There has been a sad increase in reports of “puppy scams,” in which someone sells a live animal online and even agrees to ship it to the customer but steals their money instead.

In a puppy scam, which can really apply to any animal but puppies are so commonly associated with this that the name has stuck, someone offers purebred puppies for sale on a site like Craig’s List or on social media. The price is fairly typical for a purebred animal, since anything that comes across as a “steal” would stand out in people’s minds as being a possible scam.

There are tons of pictures of the available puppies and adorable names to go with them. When you reach out to the seller with the one you want, you receive instructions on how to pay the fee. Once your fee is paid, you’re provided with information on the pet’s arrival via shipping. Before the arrival, though, you receive an email with your cost for transportation. You pay that fee, then receive another invoice requiring you to pay the legally mandated live animal insurance.

If you make it this far and have paid all these fees, the communications simply stop, but many victims have reported getting suspicious by the time they were required to pay the third outrageous fee. Your emails and calls go unanswered, and the seller removes the ad from the website. You are out the money and have literally no way to contact this person. Those adorable photos you were shown were just cut and pasted from other online sources. There is no dog, and your money is long gone.

Like any item you plan to purchase from an individual seller sight-unseen, you need to take steps to protect yourself from this kind of scam. Ask for (and reach out to) references, inquire about using a payment protection service, and other smart measures. If you can avoid purchasing an animal from a location that is too far for you to drive, that may also help prevent you from becoming a victim of a scam.

Of course, one surefire way to avoid a pet scam is to adopt locally from a shelter. There are many loving animals awaiting a home, far more than there are actually homes for. Consider opening your heart and your home to a really deserving animal instead of risking giving your money and your information to a scammer.

If you think you may be a victim of identity theft, contact the Identity Theft Resource Center for toll-free, no-cost assistance at (888) 400-5530. For on-the-go assistance, check out the free ID Theft Help App.