Action Fraud, the UK centre for online fraud and cybercrime, received 1,146 reports of cat buyers being conned in the 2020-21 financial year – a more than fivefold increase on 2019-20, when 190 instances were reported.
Buyers lost an average of £216 each, the latest figures show – up from £169 last time.
Tricksters advertise kittens for sale on buying sites or social-media platforms, and give excuses for not showing kittens with their mother cat at home, often citing social distancing, according to charity Cats Protection.
Newborn kittens should be kept with their mothers to build up their immunity until they are at least eight-10 weeks old.
Buyers should be able to see mother and kitten together as often as possible before separating the youngsters, experts say.
But Cats Protection has found growing numbers of people claiming they were mis-sold a kitten – some of whom paid hundreds of pounds.
Stefan Blakiston-Moore, of the charity, said: “Adverts for cats and kittens may be misleading.
“Sellers will usually come up with ways to stop buyers seeing young kittens with their mum cat in their home environment, for example by stressing the need to keep to social-distancing rules.
“This means in many cases kittens are handed over on the first meet-up, with the buyer not realising that the kittens are sick, diseased or have severely impaired immune systems after being taken from their mum when they were too young.”
Animal lovers often cite the “adopt, don’t shop” slogan for people wanting to home a cat or kitten to adopt instead of paying breeders.
Last year, the government introduced landmark legislation called Lucy’s Law to tackle the low-welfare, high volume supply of puppies and kittens, by requiring only licensed breeders in England may sell animals, banning sales by “third parties”. But some unscrupulous sellers are still cashing in.
Samantha Webb, 32, from Truro, says she was tricked when she bought a kitten she saw on social media.
“On arrival, I was handed a frail and limp kitten who wouldn’t open his eyes. He didn’t resemble any of the kittens in the photo at all,” she said.
“I handed over an agreed fee of £30 just so I could get this poor kitten to the vet, who confirmed he was just four weeks old and had a neurological condition called cerebellar hypoplasia caused by his mum having a virus during pregnancy.
“I tried to look after Franky at home but one night he fell into a disorientated state, drooling and whining and pressing his head against the wall. I rushed him back to the vet and despite doing what they could, Franky’s condition quickly deteriorated and he had to be put to sleep.”
Ms Webb reported the case to the social media platform and the RSPCA.
In the 2020-21 financial year, around 340,000 cats were bought from online adverts – contributing to a rise in the number of pet cats in the UK, from 10.2 million last year to 10.8 million this year.
Some animal sanctuaries say they have been inundated with kittens because of Covid.
Ferne sanctuary in Somerset said that last year vets treated only emergency cases and spaying was not seen as an emergency.
As a result, Ferne has “experienced an explosion in kitten numbers the like of which it has never seen”.
Tara Nirula, rehoming manager, said: “With the closure by national charities of local branches and the population explosion caused by the lack of spaying we are facing a perfect storm. We are permanently full for cats and have an ever-increasing waiting list.”
The RSPCA said it was receiving strong anecdotal reports that more owners were abandoning their cats since the end of lockdown.
A spokeswoman said: “Our centres and branches are seeing lots of cats coming into their care at the moment. This could be due to the end of the kitten season when most cats are born – or more worryingly, it could be as a result of people buying cats on impulse earlier in the year who are now struggling to cope with them.
“We’d urge anyone who has thoroughly done their research and is keen to take on a rescue cat to consider adopting from the RSPCA.”