Lucrative, simple, and virtually risk free: Why pet theft - or dognapping - is rising

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The Independent Online

For the many who suffer, it can be almost as devastating as losing a child. And for the criminals involved, it is an easy way of making money with relatively little risk of being detected.

For the many who suffer, it can be almost as devastating as losing a child. And for the criminals involved, it is an easy way of making money with relatively little risk of being detected.

Dog theft is one of Britain's fastest-growing crimes, with dozens of new cases being reported each week. A large number involve "dog-napping", with hundreds and sometimes thousands of pounds being demanded for the return of a much-loved family pet.

According to DogLost, one of several bodies that have recently sprung into existence to help reunite people with their dogs, the situation is in danger of spiralling out of control.

"The problem is just getting bigger and bigger. When we began two and a half years ago, we were getting just a handful of calls, now our phone lines just don't stop for 12 hours a day every day,'' said the founder, Jayne Hayes.

Some of the thefts are opportunistic - dogs snatched from gardens, or gathered up after straying - while others are organised raids on pedigree breeders, particularly in country areas. In the inner cities, many dogs, especially Staffordshire bull terriers, are stolen and sold on the black market, or in pubs and car boot sales, by drug addicts trying to fund their habits.

Other popular targets of the thieves are country dogs like terriers, spaniels and labradors and guard-type breeds, which are often easy prey because they are housed outdoors. Some are stolen for breeding or illegal coursing and fighting - evidence of pedigree increases their value. Stolen lurcher pups are said to sell for around £80, while a Crufts champion bitch stolen last year was said to have a value of £50,000.

In some cases, where people have put up "missing" posters offering rewards, they receive messages threatening violence against their dog unless the reward - or more - is paid over. Many victims simply pay up. "What can you do when your children are distraught and insisting that you do everything to find their pet?'' said one man, who recently paid several hundred pounds to get the family dog back.

Some face extortion demands for thousands of pounds from those who have no idea of the dog's whereabouts, but hope their victims will be gullible enough to hand over the money. In one case earlier this year in London, police were called and mounted a sting operation using a disguised policewoman; two teenagers who had allegedly demanded £3,000 are awaiting trial.

Although campaigners, who include MPs and the RSPCA, are now urging that the police and local authorities take action, part of the problem with combating dog theft is a lack of official statistics. Some idea of the scale of the problem can be gained by the fact that around 105,000 stray dogs are picked up every year, while around 50,000 lost dogs are reported to insurance companies, although it is not possible to say how many are stolen.

DogLost say about 80 per cent of the 1,300 cases they have completed involve "suspicious" circumstances. About 10 per cent of those have been linked to some kind of demand for a ransom or reward money before the dog is returned.

Ms Hayes said that while many police officers are privately sympathetic, pressures on police time dictate that unless there is direct evidence of theft, such as a break-in, cases of suspected dog theft receive very low priority.

£500 riddle of returned Rhodesian ridgeback

George Fowler still does not know quite what happened when Bruno, his seven-month-old Rhodesian ridgeback, went missing. What he does know is that last Tuesday morning, £500 in cash was paid to a stranger in a supermarket car park to get the dog back.

Bruno, bought with his sister Meadow by Mr Fowler to be guard dogs, disappeared from the grounds of the family house near Ashford in Kent last week.

Mr Fowler, an IT worker in the City, had the case in the local media, put up posters, notified vets and kennels and offered a £500 reward.

After a week, Mr Fowler received an anonymous text. "I know where your dog is ..." it began. Text exchanges led to Mr Fowler's son, Ross, 22, being in Sainsbury's car park in Ashford when a man in a Volvo estate, with a woman and child, and Bruno in the back, drew up. "The man was terrified and shaking, presumably in case police were waiting for him," Mr Fowler said. "My son made sure the dog was Bruno and paid the money.''

The man said the dog had been found wandering by a farmer. He said he worked at the farm, but was happy to steal the dog and hand it over for the £500.

Mr Fowler said: "I don't believe it. It doesn't seem likely a farmer would take the dog off, or that someone would be prepared to risk their job to return him for just £500.

"And I still don't know whether the dog was stolen or escaped. Bruno is fine, if subdued, and we are glad to have him back."