Bae is a 19-week-old Siberian husky with tawny brown markings and cerulean eyes. She's available for $1,500 on the website of Theresa Rosales, a breeder who is licensed by the Department of Agriculture and offers AKC registrations for all puppies she sells out of her Hamer, S.C., home. Photos show the pup standing near to a wooden fence and bright red roses.
One of those photos can also be found on websites called candyhuskies.us and diamondhuskies.us. On those sites, however, Bae is called Tilla, and she's listed at the much lower price of $600. Neither site lists the name or location of a breeder, and they encourage potential customers to email.
Bae's alternate identity is no surprise to Rosales, who said her puppies' photos are regularly copied and used on other sites that claim to sell dogs. And it's no surprise to officials at the Better Business Bureau, which this week released a report warning that online pet sales scams are "victimizing Americans at an alarming rate."
This kind of scam happens like much online fraud, the report said: A product is advertised on a professional-looking site. Customers are asked to wire the purchase price, and then they're asked for additional fees. In the end, the product is never delivered.
The bureau says its ScamTracker website has received more than 1,000 complaints about such faux puppy enterprises, and its investigation cited a 2015 Federal Trade Commission internal report that found a majority of 37,000 pet-related complaints involved fraudulent sales.
"I knew this was a problem, but it's worse than I thought," said Steve Baker, a Better Business Bureau international investigations specialist who wrote the report. "This has just saturated the Internet."
The problem is probably a logical outgrowth of two concurrent trends: a growing pet population and an increase in shopping online — a universe where, Baker said, it's near impossible to search for a puppy without wading through fake websites. And much like online dating scams, the puppy versions prey on people's emotions. Baker said several victims he spoke to lost thousands of dollars and ended up brokenhearted.
One California mother, he said, was bilked out of nearly $1,000 for a teacup Yorkshire terrier puppy for her 10-year-old daughter, who "was going to bed crying every night" as the supposed sellers delayed the dog's arrival. At one point, the sellers told the woman the puppy was stuck at an airport in Oklahoma, then threatened to report her to the FBI for "animal abandonment" if she did not pay an additional $980 for pet health insurance, Baker said.
Fake pet sales have become so pervasive that the attorneys general of three states - Ohio, Arizona and Virginia - have issued warnings to residents in the past year. In a related development, Delta Air Lines last week filed a lawsuit against what it called a "bogus" site that dupes people into believing it provides pet transport services on Delta jets. The site is called DeltaPetTransit.com.
A hub for such scams appears to be the West African nation of Cameroon, where the domain names of many have been registered, Baker said. His report also cited a handful of recent charges against Cameroonians in the United States linked to pet sale fraud, including three Pennsylvania university students accused in May of peddling nonexistent boxer puppies online.
Tracking Bae's online presence provides one journey into the vortex of this faux online marketplace. Right click on her photo on Rosales's website, loyalsiberian.com, and a Google image search turns up her photos on Candy Huskies and Diamond Huskies. Those sites' "About Us" sections have several paragraphs of generic information containing these lines:
"We are parents of four children and five grandchildren. Our oldest daughter is married and has three boys and lives down the road from us. Our son is in the Air Force and just recently became engaged and our youngest daughter lives nearby and has a three month old baby boy."
A Google search for those sentences locates them on all sorts of sites, including one for Evans Siberian Huskies Pet Home. The single, misspelled testimonial on that site is next to a photo of a young woman holding a husky puppy — an image that can be found on various websites.
Another site, fabuloushuskies.com, has on its homepage a sentence directly lifted from Rosales's site: "Whether you are living in Hamer or out of state, we are happy to help you decide whether a AKC Loyal Siberian husky is right for you." A testimonial there purports to be from someone named "Jane Woe," and it's next to a photo of a blond woman that, again, is found on various unrelated websites.
A man who answered the phone number listed for Candy Huskies on Wednesday said he was located in El Paso. But when asked for more information about his kennel, he hung up. The number listed for Diamond Huskies is out of service.
Rosales, by contrast, lists her address on her website, and she picks up her phone and answers questions. In an interview, she said she's been breeding Siberians since 1992 and currently has 14 adults and about the same number of puppies. She sells both in person and online, and a flat shipping cost includes a crate and paperwork, she said. Customers are required to fill out an application to help her determine whether they're ready for a strong-willed husky, and Rosales said she sometimes turns people away.
"You want them to go to good homes, and you have to sort of investigate who (buyers) are, where they're going," she said.
When told by a reporter that Bae appeared elsewhere online under a different name and price, Rosales just sighed. She's been alerted to this by other customers — some of whom have previously been victims of a scam. Once, she said, a man posing as a customer called and asked her to shoot and send him videos of some puppies. Rosales said she spent hours doing so, then later discovered the videos had been posted as advertisements on another site.
Rosales said she'd called phone numbers on some of the sites using her photos, and was "told off" by men using "vile language."
"Now I try to leave them alone," she said. "I don't know what they're capable of doing."
Animal protection advocates say all this underscores the importance of seeing a potential pet in person — both to ensure it exists and to get a look at the breeding setting. Or, as the John Goodwin of the Humane Society of the United States put it: "Show me the mommy."
"Everyone's consumption habits are shifting toward the Internet, and that works fine with books, but it's a poor way to bring a puppy into a family," said Goodwin, senior director of the organization's "Stop Puppy Mills" campaign. "If they're not going to go to a rescue or shelter, at least invest enough time to meet the breeder in person and meet the mother dog to ensure that you're not dealing with a puppy mill."