Tuesday

1st Dec 2020

Opinion

Buyer beware! Online pet sales in EU need better regulation

  • Currently, most online traders of puppies and kittens across the EU can advertise in full anonymity (Photo: jillhudgins)

Buying your dream pet was a click away.

Yet, far too soon, your new companion shows symptoms of being unwell, and you are called to choose between a costly treatment with a small chance of recovering, or letting it go.

Read and decide

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  • In Germany alone, the sales of puppies is worth €1bn a year (Photo: Wikimedia)

The animal was advertised online, home-delivered and your efforts to contact the seller – let alone get a refund - proved futile.

The advertiser's profile on the classified site has been deleted and the platform is unable to provide you with further information on the seller.

The police advised you to sue under civil law, or if you assume this person is a regular fraudster, to file a complaint. You did not get the impression that a lot would happen afterwards.

This is just one, albeit very common, example of consumer deception in the online pet trade.

Fraud takes many variant forms, including sellers breaking off contact shortly after getting a deposit, and commercial traders advertising underaged, sick and trafficked pets without being prosecuted.

Abuse of the EU rules on the non-commercial movement of pets, and the lack of an EU requirement for the registration of the animal/ownership (as of the breeder onwards) relation in a database (microchip registration) largely favours illegal activity - leaving no solid evidence that trace the animal to the seller.

Currently, most online traders of puppies and kittens across the EU can advertise in full anonymity.

Whilst the internet is becoming the main channel for pet acquisition, the lack of rules on the responsibilities of platforms regarding pet advertising has severely compromised consumer protection, fair competition, and animal health and welfare.

Despite the awareness raised on the red flags, there is ample evidence on the scale of deception.

Buyer beware

Spotting misleading and illegal advertisement is getting increasingly complex and the disproportionate responsibility to detect fraud has been placed almost entirely upon consumers.

Oftentimes, prospective owners spend little time to choose where they will get their pet from and even choose to purchase animals presented to them by dubious sellers.

The number of advertisements, which in Germany alone rises to 1,800 new puppy offers on single classifieds daily (annual value of over €1bn) calls for robust measures, especially as the filters used by platforms can be easily circumvented.

Further, most marketplaces rely on email verification to validate the user's details, so traders can create multiple accounts and sell under different profiles.

It has been also made evident that notice-and-action mechanisms and ex-post control of live ads in the online pet trade do not provide for protection since consumers usually click on the latest ads and reach out to the sellers before the platform removes the content – provided the ad even looked suspicious in the first place.

The high percentage of non-compliant ads across the EU was recently unveiled to the EU Commission and member states through the EU Coordinated Control Plan on online sales of dogs and cats.

The findings saw offers of trafficked and underage animals, unvaccinated or of poor health status with falsified ID documents, and a significant mismatch between the sellers' "private/hobby" status and activity.

Suggestions to address the matter included guidelines with mandatory recommendations for online platforms.

Common rules have a compelling case, since the online pet trade is already fragmented across the EU: some member states and platforms have applied various levels of measures for animal and seller traceability, including voluntary self-regulation measures, mandatory fields (stated information is rarely verified), seller-identity verification through a paywall and content-checking.

Decisive steps have been seen in Ireland, where legislation requires that the unique code of the animal's microchip should be visible in the advertisement.

This requirement paves the way for the automated verification of the microchip number against a pet database – that is a GDPR-compliant process that validates whether the animal is duly registered under a traceable seller.

In view of Article 13 of the TFEU, it is now compelling that the commission improves the protection of animals traded online as part of its Digital Agenda.

Digital Services Act

The Digital Services Act now affords the opportunity for setting the standards in the online advertising of companion animals, while respecting the privacy of users and securing seller traceability.

More precisely, the requirement for minimum validation checks of the identity of users offering animals for sale online, as contained within the European Parliament's resolution should be explored.

The commission should consider the GDPR-compliant requirement for online platforms to have the animal's microchip registration on an identifiable seller checked before the offer goes live.

Since registration for dogs is already mandatory in most member states, and databases exist in all EU countries, this measure can prevent illegal and anonymous advertising and secure that only registered animals are advertised by traceable sellers.

Author bio

Martin Hojsík is a Slovak MEP, Petras Austrevičius a Lithuanian MEP, both with the Renew Europe liberal group.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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