Animal Scene’s experts share their advice for avoiding scam artists.

By Charlene Bobis

Some time ago, our managing editor Jeff received a call—at our office, nonetheless—in which a man claiming to be from a certain government department began to insinuate threats about us being “punished” or “being implicated” due to certain animals featured in this magazine. When asked for his name and that of his superior, though, the man abruptly hung up.

Also, we at Animal Scene have heard several sad stories over the past few weeks about hobbyists or pet buyers who were scammed and sold sick, dying, or unhealthy creatures. Moreover, there are stories about those who paid up but never got what they had saved up for and long anticipated.

So we sat down with leaders—hobbyists, breeders, longtime aficionados—in the animal scene, and we gathered their thoughts about avoiding falling victim to these dishonest people.

1. Do your due diligence. Mainly, this is in the form of referrals. The man the snake trade knows as Pitlair advises, “One should ask for referrals.” Breeder Melvin So agrees, adding, that “In the pet trade, it’s much better if whoever you deal with is a referral; that way, at least, you have a common friend.”

There are other aspects of due diligence. Pitlair warns that whether you’re the buyer or the seller, “…there are so many issues from small to large, such as misrepresentation, deliberate mislabeling of the specimen, incorrect gender, and sick animals.” Lennox Ong of Zealous Trading Pet Shop offers this advice for dealing with these situations:

“If the offer is too good to be true and the deal is too easy too close, especially if it is the first time for you and that seller to transact, be wary.”

Pitlair adds, “If you wish to do more research, there are a few Facebook groups dedicated to issues of scams, extortion, and deals that just turned bad such as https://www.facebook.com/groups/153210474819935/ where they post about the scammers and bad people in the hobby. I think there are a lot more on different animals; I’m just a member.”

TIP: Just because you know someone personally doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t deal dishonestly with you. Melvin says, “Honestly I think you can’t tell whether a person wants to screw with you…I’ve been scammed by people I know, and someone I know also extorted from me.” What made it worse was that he knew these horrible people personally. Exercise good judgment and ask others discreetly about their experiences with the person concerned.

PCCI’S Johnny Filart shares that in 1999, two people arrived at his house claiming they had been referred by Johnny’s friend. They wanted to buy expensive animals: a cockatiel and two flowerhorns. Johnny hesitated for two reasons: they had arrived in a beat-up old Ford Fiera, and when the time came to fork over the payment, both said they would pay the entire Php 8,500 bill in two installments when payday came. Uneasy, he called the friend, who vouched for them and said they were legitimate buyers—and so Johnny let them leave with the animals. However, “When the first due date came, they made good with the first deposit. But they never made good on the second and final installment.”

He continues: “Moral of the story? Do not trust even a dear friend to guarantee an installment sale. When confronted about the non-payment, my friend just shrugged and said he just met them once and bought a cheap bird from one of them—and this was in stark contrast to his initial persuasive words that they were ‘legit’ when I contacted him the first time they came to the house.”

2. Stay in control. Says Pitlair, “You should set terms and conditions that will deter scammers; avoid accommodating requests that fall outside ideal conditions as you will be compromised. An example would be an offer of trade, partial trade, terms.”

There’s another area where you should also stay in control: your personal information. Hobbyist Arjan Cheng warns, “Most of the time you need to be extra careful as to who you share your personal information with because it can be used to send scam messages or texts designed to make you feel threatened.”

TIP: This is one reason why certain popular hobbyists use pseudonyms and have separate Facebook accounts for their hobbies. Keep your Facebook profile private, especially if you have pictures of your children and other loved ones posted there. Don’t give the scammer information to use against you.

3. Be alert to verbal and nonverbal cues that can tip you off. Arjan explains, “You can tell if a person is scamming you by the way the conversation starts or the way they open up to you about the subject they want to say or share.” Examples of these, according to Lennox, are “the constant namedropping of others in the hobby (especially if they are only passing acquaintances), putting too much emphasis on his or her capacity to pay, and constant bragging.”

If the person you’re dealing with seems to know nothing about the creature they are trading or selling, or only wants to talk about price, and refuses to answer questions about the animal’s health and how it was raised, be on alert. Hostility, nervousness, sweating, restlessness, and an insistence on meeting somewhere dark or shady are trigger signs that should warn you of a high probability of a dishonest person.

Another thing to watch out for is when someone is, to use a very apt phrase, “feeling close.” Margarita Hermoso, president of the Philippine Arowana and Lou Han Society (PALHS), comments that you should be suspicious of a person whom you’ve just met who immediately asks you favors, such as assisting them with a trade or undertaking any transactions involving money from you to their benefit. Unless you met in a business setting, this seems a bit predatory, and may turn out to be against your interests.

TIP: Be especially careful when dealing with shops that sell animals which use “barkers” or people who work on commission. This can indicate two things: first, that the sellers consider the animals to be mere merchandise and are highly likely not to care about its welfare or emotional health; and second, precisely because the animals are considered merchandise, they are likely to be unhealthy or unhappy. A legitimate seller or breeder will have enough good word-of-mouth so that they will never need to position barkers in places where there are many pet shops.

These barkers can also be rude and aggressive if you hesitate. Your best bet is to simply ignore them. Go ahead and check out the animals offered for sale at big emporiums where there are several pet shops, but do your due diligence once you’ve found the breed or animal you want, and look for a reputable breeder. You will save yourself much money, disappointment, and heartbreak this way.

TIP: Be very very careful when dealing with someone you don’t know or who cannot give referrals; if the latter is the case, cancel your transaction immediately if the person being asked for referrals becomes angry or
hostile.

4. If you have a store or sell animals, you need to protect yourself by keeping all transactions legal (be sure you have your BIR and DENR and other relevant registrations) so that you can’t be left open to extort attempts.

Sam’s Lagoon, a pet shop, shared many unpleasant experiences with us. They ranged from false orders to even solicitations for contributions to nonexistent events. The latter were not even animal-related, and Sam’s Lagoon claimed that the people who made the extort attempts even seemed to be lawmen!

It was difficult to verify these men’s claims as the only way to do so was to contact the concerned police station—which in itself posed certain risks. But they did so in front of the scammers, who fled as soon as the number was dialed. In one instance, though, a customer paid for purchases using a check and when asked for an ID, produced a gun instead—and it was more prudent to let the person have what he wanted instead of exposing the shop’s personnel to the risk of death.

TIP: Keep good records of all pretransaction conversations. Screen captures of text messages, Facebook posts and messages, and forum exchanges are very valuable not only because you will have evidence should you need legal means to retrieve your losses, but also because some scammers resort to attempting to slander their victims on social media, making it look like their victim is at fault! It’s always good to have a witness with you, too, when transacting in person; this reduces the threat of physical violence should you
have the misfortune to deal with that kind of scammer.

5. Know where the merchandise comes from. As seen in 4 above, sometimes scammers get away with it. The offer of, say, an arowana at thousands of pesos below the normal market price is never a good one. Remember that hobbyist circles aren’t that big, and you can earn yourself a reputation for being dishonest if you accept stolen animals or equipment. Again, referrals and due diligence are key to avoiding such situations.

TIP: Know what you’re dealing with. Pitlair explains, “Extort attempts normally happen to those who deal with inverts and local species and animals normally that cannot be, or are hard to register.”

Can I Be Dirty Harry?

You’ve been victimized, and you want the world to know it! So you post photos and screen captures on Facebook, and name the perpetrator and tag him or her in your posts. Karma strikes, right?Don’t do it. Not just because you shouldn’t take justice in your hands, but also because the scammer can turn things around and play the victim card against you, making you look like YOU are the scammer and the aggressor.

Your posts will be taken against you; if the scammer has a bigger social network or manages to make their claims go viral, you may end up becoming the villain, with no chance of correcting the misimpression. Remember, people on Facebook rarely research the other side of the story and will immediately side with the person they know and attack whoever they see as their friend’s ene-my. And if your scammer is especially daring and thick-faced, you may even wind up in court!How should you do it then? Before posting screencaps, blur out faces, names, and identifying details. Avoid profanity; stick to narrating the facts. Use clear language, whether English or Filipino.

Do not identify the person concerned, but allow friends to contact you privately to ask who the scammer is. And use the words “alleged” and “claimed” when referring to what the person said or did. Link to security videos or post photos of documenting evidence—but again, be sure to blur out faces, names, and identifying details.Better safe than sorry, after all. You’ve already been victimized; don’t open yourself up to more victimization.

This appeared as “Buyer and Seller Beware” in Animal Scene’s October 2015 issue.