For many victims, the first they know of becoming part of one of Britain's growing crime trends is an anonymous call or text message offering help in finding their missing cat or dog.
Within hours, the animal, whose missing status has often been advertised on neighbourhood lampposts with the offer of a reward for its return, is found and a rendezvous set up to exchange the pet for cash.
According to research published yesterday, this a scenario played out with increasing frequency across Britain as 520 cats and dogs go missing every day, with dozens from that figure feared stolen.
The Missing Pets Bureau (MPB), which helps to trace missing or stolen animals, said it had seen cases of dog theft double in the past 12 months, with an accompanying increase in ransom demands and evidence of stolen pedigree pets being sold on.
"Dognapping" rose by 141 per cent last year to 300 cases a year, according to the MPB. Another charity, DogLost, estimates that about 80 per cent of the 1,300 cases it deals with involve suspicious circumstances.
The MPB, which only treats a missing animal as stolen if it has been registered by police, said it was convinced that there is now a market based on the theft of domestic pets. In one recent case, investigators found a private "dog auction" was being held in Essex to sell pets, many of them suspected to have been stolen.
Simon Worsfold, the director of the MPB, said: "The problem has grown from only a few hundred cases a year to several hundred every week. Stealing a pet is seen as a way of making easy money. When the animal is a pedigree, more often than not it will never be seen again by the owner because it is sold on.
"But there is also a growing problem with dogs being stolen by people who then return when the owner puts up a reward poster and say they simply found the dog or bought it from someone else."
The claimed rise in dog theft was highlighted last week when a dog breeder and former Crufts judge paid £2,000 to a member of the traveller community after three pedigree puppies - a Japanese chin and two griffon bruxellois - were stolen from her home in Kingsclere, Hampshire. Tessa Gaines, 72, said she had to negotiate a deal through intermediaries after the dogs were traced to a travellers' site close to her home.
Campaigners say the practice is not restricted to the traveller community, with recent cases including a drug addict who stole a labrador in London to fund his next fix.
Public perception that pet theft is a growing problem is reinforced by a separate study showing nearly one million Britons who have lost a cat or dog in the last five years believe it was stolen.
A survey for Sainsbury's Bank found that 966,000 people had a pet go missing between 2000 and 2005. Nearly half of that number never saw their animals again.
However, animal welfare campaigners warned that the scale of the dognapping industry may have been overstated.
A spokeswoman for the RSPCA said: "There have certainly been a number of genuine cases of dog theft but we haven't seen any evidence that it is a widespread problem."
Victoria Crossley, 59, and 'Baby': 'Someone said they knew a man who stole dogs'
Victoria Crossley feared that she would not see her pug dog again until she received a phone call 11 days after her pet had been stolen from her garden.
The florist had been working in her home near Norwich last June when she noticed that one of her two pugs had stopped barking in her garden. She distributed posters in her neighbourhood offering a reward of £1,000 for the dog's return.
Mrs Crossley, 59, said: "Among the places I left posters was a travellers' site, where someone told me they knew a man who went around stealing dogs and selling them on for a profit.
"I had a call from a man who said he had bought a dog at a horse fair and he thought it might be mine. I pleaded with him to meet me. I was so delighted to see my dog that I told the friend with me to hand the money over. The man was absolutely charming but I have no doubt that he was somehow involved in the theft."Reuse content