DOGNAPPED! Litters of puppies stolen. £1,000 ransoms. Inside Britain's cruellest black market

What a great relief to hear that Alfie, the 16-week-old King Charles Spaniel stolen in West Bromwich earlier this month, has been given back to his owners, in return for a £150 reward.

While the theft of the 16-week-old puppy was particularly upsetting — he was snatched by two men on a motorbike in broad daylight, while his shocked, helpless owners looked on — such incidents are now all too common in Britain.

As the head of a pet detective agency, we get 60 to 100 cases reported every day; and up to 3,000 people a day use our website, which has lists of missing and found animals, to search for their pets. Of course many of those are lost, but a huge number are stolen. And there are countless further cases that never get reported.

Cartoon adventure: Alfie the puppy  was stolen was like something out of the Disney film 101 Dalmatians

Cartoon adventure: Alfie the puppy was stolen was like something out of the Disney film 101 Dalmatians

Animal theft is an easy crime to commit. Alfie, for example, was in a pen in front of his owner's workplace — I imagine some opportunistic yobs saw the cute dog and thought: 'We'll have him.'

I hate to blame the victims, but the public is naive about where we leave our animals. We wouldn't leave our wallet, keys or iPod on the back seat of the car, yet people leave their dogs there. And thieves have no problem with smashing a car window (which should be partly open anyway). At other times, you have to tie your dog up outside a shop.

Pet theft is easy money, involving increasingly big sums, particularly with the rise in the past five years of desirable designer breeds like labradoodles — a cross between a labrador and a poodle.

Personally I love animals, that's why I gave up my job as a policeman to set up this company, but I don't see the point of having them as a fashion statement or status symbol.

Dognapped: Yesterday's story about Alfie the stolen puppy in the Daily Mail

Dognapped: Yesterday's story about Alfie the stolen puppy in the Daily Mail

I've got a mongrel — Paris — and very lovely she is too. Still, because certain dogs have become as fashionable as some cars and clothes, their value has soared.

Thieves can sell them on for hundreds of pounds, particularly if they are a valuable pedigree dog such as a Staffordshire bull terrier. But without the proper breeding papers, thieves can't charge as much as they might like to. Dogs worth £1,000 are going for £250.

The internet has also given thieves new avenues to sell abducted animals. Online sites such as eBay offer quick, anonymous sales. In one case, investigators also found a private 'dog auction' in Essex to sell pets, many of them suspected to have been stolen.

Happy to be home: Alfie bounding around the garden with his family after heartless opportunist thieves stole him

Happy to be home: Alfie bounds around the garden with his family after opportunist thieves stole him

Yet the most outrageous animal-snatchers make their profits from extorting ransom money. It's the easiest trick in the book — they steal the pet, wait for the reward notice to go up and then ring up to claim the money. £1,000 rewards are common.

Pets are much-loved members of the family — some clients react as seriously as if their child were  missing — and many are willing to pay over the odds to get their beloved animal back. We have owners who ring up in floods of tears and take sick days off work.

Unfortunately, all sorts of thieves are on the look-out for animals, prize dogs especially. Some will plan their operations carefully — scanning the puppies-for-sale adverts before targeting particular owners.

Dog thieves: The dognappers are caught on CCTV after stealing Alfie

Puppy thieves: The dognappers are caught on CCTV with Alfie sandwiched between them

In 2010 there were fears that a  gang was stealing animals to order in Essex, after nine pets vanished from family gardens in four weeks. I've  also been called out on cases where whole litters of puppies have been abducted, in plots straight out of  the film 101 Dalmatians. Others are just opportunists.

Even celebrities aren't immune from the dognapping phenomenon. Last year, baby food expert Annabel Karmel had her white Samoyed stolen from a dog walker in Hampstead — the woman who returned it and one other stolen dog pocketed a reward of £7,000.

Bruce Forsyth appeared on television in 2006 to appeal for the return of his daughter's Yorkshire terriers, stolen from inside her parked BMW. They were returned shortly after an appeal on morning TV show GMTV. Lionel Blair, Liz Hurley, Paris Hilton and Engelbert Humperdinck have also suffered dog thefts.

Stolen: Alfie was snatched in front of his owners by two men on a motorbike

Tiny: Alfie when he was really small. The Parsons say he melts the hearts of all their customers

Sometimes animals are targeted by thieves for their particular skills — shooting dogs are particularly vulnerable because they are trained. In 2009, four valuable spaniels were stolen from a shooting school in Hampshire, where they were being trained. Their owners offered £4,000 as a reward, but they were never returned.

The ten pet detectives on our books at Animal Search UK try to track down missing animals. We've got a number of techniques. Our call centre is open 24 hours a day for people to ring with tip-offs, but it's crucial to get witnesses to a pet theft — without a witness, the police tend to record the dog as missing rather than stolen; they don't want to raise crime figures if they don't have to.

OUR detectives spend time trawling the internet to see if the dog is being sold, but to be in with the best chance of having a pet returned safely you have to act swiftly, covering the neighbourhood in posters and leaflets and contacting the local newspaper.

Once our feelers are out, our pet detective teams go into action — in bright orange uniform, driving patrol cars with high-visibility stickers all over them. We do door-to-door inquiries, track down witnesses and pass on details where appropriate to the police. We have no more formal powers than any citizen, but we will interview people informally.

While micro-chipping dogs — implanting a tiny chip into the scruff of the dog's neck which contains the owner's details — doesn't help us to find the animal in the first place, it can help to prove who it belongs to when it is found.

An increasing number of dog owners are also using tracking devices to keep hold of their pets — such as a collar called 'Retrieva' which links to the Global Positioning System, enabling owners to track their animal.

Our ultimate tool is the Crimewatch-style reconstruction. This summer we did a full-scale  animal theft re-enactment in our hunt for Rufus, a two-year-old  border terrier from Nantwich, Cheshire, who went missing last  September. He was struck by a car and survived, but was picked up by a mystery couple in a blue saloon — and hasn't been seen since.

His owner has spent more than £5,000 trying to recover him and we screened the reconstruction on YouTube. People will spend any amount of money and go to any lengths to have their beloved pets returned safely to them.

It costs up to £2,000 to make a crime reconstruction video and have it professionally edited — although pet insurance companies will now pay for publicity to retrieve missing animals. Not that we make much money — that's not why we do it.

We do it because if our beloved Paris were stolen from us, we would want to know that someone out there would track down the thieves, bring them to justice and return her safely to us.

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