Understanding pet scams: A case study of advance fee and non-delivery fraud using victims’ accounts

DOI10.1177/0004865820957077
Date01 December 2020
AuthorJack M Whittaker,Mark Button
Publication Date01 December 2020
SubjectArticles
Article
Understanding pet scams:
A case study of advance
fee and non-delivery fraud
using victims’ accounts
Jack M Whittaker
Department of Sociology, University of Surrey, UK
Mark Button
Institute of Criminal Justice Studies, University of Portsmouth, UK
Abstract
Advance fee and non-delivery frauds have become very common with the growing prefer-
ence for online shopping and the new oppor tunities this brings for online offenders. This
article uses unique access to a volunteer group’s database focused on preventing pet scams to
explore this type of crime. Distances, among other factors, make the purchase of pets online
common in countries such as the USA, Australia and South Africa. This modality of purchase
has been exploited by organized criminals largely based in Cameroon to conduct advance fee
and non-delivery frauds. The article uses data from the volunteer group Petscams.com to
provide unique insights on the techniques of the offenders with particular reference to the
strategies used to maximize victimization by using real accounts of victims of such frauds.
It also briefly notes how the COVID-19 crisis has been used to adapt this type of scam. The
article’s discussion identifies the need for a more nuanced assessment into the role of victim
oriented voluntary organizations.
Keywords
Cybercrime, fraud, pet scams, scams, techniques
Date received: 12 May 2020; accepted: 17 August 2020
Corresponding author:
Jack Whittaker, Department of Sociology, University of Surrey, Surrey GU2 7XH, UK.
Email: jackmwhittaker@gmail.com
Australian & New Zealand Journal of
Criminology
2020, Vol. 53(4) 497–514
!The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
sagepub.com/journals-permissions
DOI: 10.1177/0004865820957077
journals.sagepub.com/home/anj
Introduction
The global cybercrime economy has co-existed alongside the digital ec onomy since its
inception and is currently estimated to be worth at least an estimated $1.5 trillion per
year (Mcguire, 2018). Scholars have identified that a key component of this lucrative
economy is ‘platform crime’, the incorporation of online platforms into criminal modalities
(Levi, 2016; Mcguire, 2018). Cybercriminals may seek to exploit existing platforms created
for legitimate purposes for a variety of online crimes such as credit card ph ishing, cyber-
stalking and to spread malware (Button & Cross, 2017; Cross, 2015; Prenzler, 2017;
Soomro & Hussain, 2019; Van Wilsem, 2011). Platforms may also be tailor-made and
commoditized for the purpose of providing cybercriminals with means to access a plethora
of online tools in what has been defined as ‘cybercrime-as-a-service’ (M cguire, 2018). The
rise in these personalized cybercrime platforms provides online offenders with unprecedent-
ed access to illegal products and services such as botnet rentals, virus infection services and
crimeware upgrade models in what is becoming an increasingly sophisticated and special-
ized black market (Ablon & Libicki, 2015; Manky, 2013). The definition of a cybercrime-
as-a-service platform lies in its malicious output, whether that is to perform a Distributed
Denial of Service Attack attack against a target’s computer, phish for cr edit card informa-
tionthroughtargetedemailsortoinfectacomputerwithvirusesandmalware.
This article will provide a qualitative study of victim complaints made to an online
volunteer anti-fraud organization to demonstrate that non-malicious websites have been
integrated into non-delivery fraud, a specific modality of advance fee fraud whereby online
offenders attempt to defraud consumers purchasing products on the internet. Non-delivery
fraud exploits the growth in online shopping which is estimated to be at its highest
recorded levels. Consumers were expected to have spent $3.46 trillion in the global
online marketplace in 2019, an increase of over 18% from 2018 according to Internet
Retailer (Young, 2019). This study of non-delivery fraud seeks to identify that the websites
used by online offenders are malignant in terms of their functionality as static web 2.0
platforms, akin to the millions of other legitimate websites available on the internet, but
instead provide a useful platform to assist their social engineering efforts against potential
victims. It will begin by placing non-delivery fraud within t he context of cyberfraud before
identifying the opportunities for offenders to exploit the enhanced vulnerability which
consumers are exposed to when shopping online. The methodology will then outline
how a desk-based approach was taken to retrieve and catalogue victim complaints from
a voluntary consumer-focused organization called petscams.com which specializes in
warning victims about the threat of fraudulent pet websites. The results of the investigation
will identify the most popular animal species and breeds used in pet scams. It will also
provide a qualitative analysis to demonstrate how offenders extort initial pet deposit
payments and multiple recurring secondary fees from victims. The conclusion discusses
the implications of this study for routine activities theory and suggests further research
avenues by focusing on the role of voluntary organizations in preventing fraud.
Cybercrime and non-delivery fraud
It is widely acknowledged that cybercrime evolves and adapts at a rapid pace in a
continuing arms race between the illicit underground demand for products which
498 Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology 53(4)

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