J. wanted a kitten. And there it was on Internet: a tiny, motherless kitten with huge eyes and a sob story, looking for a happy home.
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What aroused J.'s misgivings was the insistence of the kitten's "father" that she couldn't come to see it, though he didn't explain exactly why. He would bring the kitten to her, he said. But he insisted that first he inspect her home in Tel Aviv to make sure it had screens on the window and was otherwise suitable for the little thing; then he'd bring it a week later after having it spayed.
Strange; and according to the picture, the animal was too young for such surgery, J. thought.
To the animal-mad among us, his pedantry is understandable, if a little over the top. Most of us settle for distrustfully quizzing the prospective pet owners and making sure they know the difference between dog food and Drano. But J. was right to be suspicious, it turned out.
A reverse-image search for the kitten's picture through Google Images confirmed J.'s fears: the picture had been around for years. If once it had been a kitten, by now it was a great big hulking cat and apparently in Russia, no less. At least, its pictures had appeared on Russian-language websites.
The scammer's objective can only be conjectured. Possibly he wanted to case the apartment to see if it was worth robbing. What is for sure is that he wasn't some sort of alternative Santa Claus, bestowing orphaned kittens on the kindhearted.
Israelis should stand warned that adorable-animal Internet scams have now reached Israel – and courtesy of that same Internet, you may be able to stymie them ahead of time.
A reverse image search to see if a specific image (or one very much like it) appears anywhere else on Internet is easy to do. The simplest way is this.
Save the picture whose like you want to find on your computer – for instance, under "My Pictures" or on your desktop. Now open a browser window and go to Google Images. Drag the picture to the search field on Google Images. It will find sites where the picture, or ones very much like it, has been published.
Don't buy animals online
Animal scams are nothing new. There's a whole subset of unwritten rules on "don't buy animals by Internet" – and you name the reason, it will apply.
The easiest way to avoid the most common type of Internet scammers is to stick with mutts, as opposed to pedigrees, for which breeders can command top dollar. For instance, a legitimate Shih Tzu can cost a thousand dollars and then some; if you see one online for half that or less, you may be tempted – but be suspicious.
And stick with "ordinary" pets as opposed to exotica. Leaving aside the legality or desirability of keeping a wild animal in your house, the simplest scammers simply don't deliver the chinchilla, monkey or kangaroo you think you ordered.
These scammers commonly seduce e-shoppers with prices they can't resist. That's appropriate enough for a pet that doesn't exist.
"If you see an offer that is too good to be true, it probably is," warns the International Pet and Animal Transportation Association.
There's the subset of ones who get you to make the first payment – and then hit you with extras, such as veterinary fees, international paperwork and that sort of thing. Again the IPATA warns, if the price is good, it's probably not legit.
"You can NEVER expect to pay only $250-$350 for an international shipment!" it warns. Even after oil prices fell to "just" $60 per barrel.
Apropos of which, "free" pets who will, however, need you to pay shipping costs are another common scam.
Then there are the ones who do deliver an animal. It just may not be the animal you thought it was. In South America, quite an industry developed in selling white ferrets packed with steroids whose fur had been blow-dried into fuzziness, as rare toy poodles.
Of course, if you can't tell the difference, perhaps you deserve what you get.
Indeed, common-garden scammers banking on ignorance never needed the Internet. Even in the era of the printed press as the main method of mass communications, one would see ads for "Persian kittens." If you asked dubiously why the "Persian kitten" had a long nose instead of a pug face, or short fur, you'd be told, "This is a special extra rare kind of Kamchatkan Persian," which is why it would cost you a month's rent.
And if you tell him it looks less like a rare breed and more like that cute kitten you saw playing outside in the street, he'll just say well, you need glasses, and he has a great deal on those for you too.