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Yes, buying a puppy is a lot of work. AS IT SHOULD BE! If you take the time to find a good breeder and a healthy puppy, you will be so happy in the long run. There is less chance that you will have health problems in the long run, including behavioral problems (of course this also deals with socialization of the puppy before 16 weeks and training). You will always have a friend in your breeder because they love to hear about their puppies.

Luckily, many animal lovers are becoming aware that purchasing a dog-or any animal, for that matter-from a pet store is a big no-no. Almost all puppies sold at pet stores come from backyard breeders or puppy mills, where dogs are housed in cramped, filthy conditions without sufficient veterinary care, food, water and socialization.

Furthermore, the breeding stock at puppy mills-the moms and dads-are bred as often as possible, for as long as possible, in order to increase profits. But a growing trend among commercial puppy breeders is to cut out the middleman-the pet shop-and use online retailing to get their dogs directly into your homes.

Internet Puppy Scams

Consumers trying to find dogs from reputable breeders or breed rescue groups often turn to the Web for advice. But they soon find themselves bombarded with elaborate websites offering the offspring of "champions." With a host of fancy terms-certified kennel, AKC registered, pedigree, health certified-and picturesque photos of tail-wagging terriers, doe-eyed Chihuahuas and every other adorable breed, it is easy to become overwhelmed with choices. Don't be fooled: the Internet is a vast, unregulated marketplace allowing anyone to put up a website claiming anything. Scattered among the websites of reputable breeders and rescue groups, Internet puppy scammers attract potential buyers with endearing pictures and phony promises.

The Loophole

Under the federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA), commercial breeders selling directly to pet stores must be licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture. However, the AWA does not regulate breeders that sell directly to the public. The AWA was passed in 1966, prior to the Internet boom-lawmakers couldn't foresee that commercial breeders would someday have the ability to sell directly to the public via the Internet. This loophole allows some puppy mills to operate without a license and without fear of inspection-meaning they are not accountable to anyone for their breeding and care standards. According to a recent ASPCA survey, 89 percent of all "breeders" selling over the Internet are unlicensed by USDA.

The Scams

An informal online survey conducted by the ASPCA reveals that just as many Americans are now purchasing their dogs over the Internet as buying from pet stores. That said, according to the Internet Crime Complaint Center, hundreds of complaints are filed every year from victims who were scammed when buying a dog online. Here are some of the most common scam scenarios predators use on consumers:

* The Bait and Switch

In this classic scam, the website depicts dozens of photos of cute and cuddly, happy and healthy puppies. What the consumer doesn't realize is that these are stock photos taken from a clip-art file-or simply stolen from other websites. In this scam, virtually all contact is done via email, and the puppy is typically shipped without the buyer ever seeing the dog in person. The scam is revealed when the dog is delivered and the buyer is faced not with the adorable puppy from the photos, but a sickly dog, often of a different color or with different markings. Scammers count on people feeling guilty or compassionate and choosing not to send the puppy back.

* Free to Good Home

Internet scammers don't just use cute photos to lure potential puppy buyers. They also resort to verbal deceit. With the "free to good home" scam, the perpetrator will often post a sad story of having to find homes for his purebred puppies immediately-he just lost his wife, they must be placed for a dying relative, he is going to Africa to be a missionary, etc. Victims are offered a puppy free of charge, and asked only to pay the shipping fee-usually about $400. Buyers are asked to send all payments via a Western Union wire transfer or money order. These methods are favorites among scam artists because they are the equivalent of sending cash-the money can't be recovered by the victim. This scam is particularly heartbreaking because there is no real dog involved! Victims usually arrive at the airport to pick up their new puppy, only to find that they have been scammed.

* Sanctuaries or Scamtuaries?

Unfortunately, this next scam preys on animal lovers who want to help dogs in need. In this scenario, the puppy mill will actually set up its website as a "rescue group" or "sanctuary," offering purebred puppies who have been rescued from shelters, bad breeders, even from puppy mills! The scam is revealed by the price tag-the "adoption fees" for these dogs often exceed $1,000! Breed rescue groups charge nominal fees-usually no more than a few hundred dollars-because their goal is not to make money, but to find wonderful homes for their rescues.

* AKC-Registered

AKC registry is a service provided by the American Kennel Club. While many people believe AKC registration means their puppies came from reputable breeders, being AKC-registered means nothing more than your puppy's parents both had AKC papers. While there are some AKC regulations, they do not restrict puppy mills from producing AKC-registered dogs. The fact is, many AKC-registered dogs are born in puppy mills.

How Can I Avoid Being Scammed?

The best way to avoid being scammed is to simply never buy a dog you haven't met in person. Please also keep in mind that adoption is still the best option, even if you have your heart set on a purebred dog. There are thousands of dogs waiting for good homes at local animal shelters, including purebreds! Keep an eye on your local shelter, as purebreds turn up more often than people think. There are also a number of reputable breed rescue groups passionate about finding great homes for purebred dogs who have been abandoned, abused or surrendered to shelters.

It's also important to note that the Internet is a very valuable tool for finding reputable breeders and breed rescue groups in your area. When looking for your puppy online, just make sure you follow these simple tips:

* Always check references, including others who have purchased pets from this breeder and the veterinarian the breeder works with.

* Be sure to deal directly with a breeder, not a broker.

* Never send Western Union or money order payments.

* Always visit. Reputable breeders and rescue groups will be more than happy to offer you a tour.

* If you are told that there will be no refunds for a sick puppy, you are most probably dealing with a puppy mill. A reputable breeder or rescue group will always take the puppy back, regardless of the reason.

* Always pick your puppy up at the kennel if at all possible. Do not meet at a random location.