As part of an ongoing series for Vetstreet, award-winning consumer reporter Mitch Lipka tackles common scams that target pet owners. This week, he discusses how you can avoid being conned when your beloved furry companion goes missing.

Lost Pet Sign

Imagine you’ve lost your dog or cat. Those who’ve been through this heartbreaking experience know you’d do almost anything to get your pet back. And that desire is exactly what makes you a prime target for the lost pet scam.

The Scenario Your pet is MIA, so you post flyers around the neighborhood and maybe even run ads on Craigslist to help you locate your lost friend.

Ways the Scam Works The information you’ve shared — a photo, your phone number and other details — can be used by crooks to merely pretend like they have your lost animal.

Here are the most common variations of the scam:

  • Someone claiming to be a long-haul truck driver says that he found your pet near the highway and now wants money in advance to transport the animal back to your town.
  • A person contacts you saying he knows who has stolen your pet and is willing to help you get the animal back — for a fee.
  • This one will really tug at your heart: Your animal has been hurt, so he'll need money to cover the veterinary costs before you're reunited.

How to Protect Yourself A big tip-off that you’re being conned: The person demands you wire money first. Pete Ziverts, a vice president at Western Union, says this old scam is still going strong. In fact, the company ramped up its fraud education efforts recently to caution consumers about wiring money to people they don’t know.

To check that the person really does have your pet, ask him to describe a specific detail about your animal not advertised on any lost pet flyers or, better yet, demand to see your pet in person.

Another important tip: Before you find yourself in this sad situation, consider getting your pet microchipped by your veterinarian. This preventive measure is actually effective in bringing lost pets home.

Mitch Lipka is one of the more widely read consumer reporters in the country. He's written for The Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Consumer Reports and AOL. He was the 2010 winner of the New York Press Club award for best consumer reporting online. Mitch has a dog and two cats.