Americans love their pets. We love them so much that retail sales for pet items have risen more than 4% each of the last few years - a growth any industry would applaud.

According to the American Pet Products Association, pet-related expenses within the U.S. market topped $72.5 billion last year, steadily climbing from about $43.2 billion in 2009.

Break down the 2018 figure and you'll find that people spent more than $2 billion purchasing pets. Then they spent $18 billion at the veterinarian, $16 billion on supplies, toys, etc., and $30 billion on feeding them, plus $6 billion on "other" things.

That's a whole lot of love.

Just consider the outpouring two years ago when dozens and dozens of starving Labrador retrievers suddenly needed homes because of a negligent Pierce County breeder. People lined up for the rescue.

No surprise then that crooks have figured out how to tug on those heartstrings, convincing people to buy some "adorable" puppy or save some "unfortunate" dog. People see the photos on the internet and succumb.

Fake websites appeals abound:

• "Send us the money and your pet will be in our waiting arms within two days."

• "For an extra couple hundred dollars, your new four-legged family member will fly in the best airport crate available."

• "We're certified by the American Kennel Club."

Chances are there is no pet. Instead of love, these scammers deliver heartbreak. And after fooling you once into buying, they try to fool you twice into purchasing shipping insurance, extra blankets and more. And that AKC claim? Well, the club doesn't certify breeders or sellers - ever. The litters are registered with the club as pure-bred animals, that's it.

The Better Business Bureau warns people that yes, some things are too cute to be true. There are pet websites for reputable breeders, of course. The BBB recommends that you buy a pet only after meeting the animal and conducting a face-to-face transaction with the breeder/owner. Never wire money and always get a written contract spelling out terms, conditions and guarantees.

We suggest that you stick with a breeder in the region - we have many great ones - where you can check references before you buy and call for advice once you're home. Another option is the local animal shelter. Regardless, there are plenty of animals close to home that need a home.

The expectation for 2019 is that Americans will spend a record $75 billion on pets. Not one dollar should go to criminals.