Volunteers at Dog Lost have reported a spike in thefts since last year with more suspected in 2022. There were 359 dogs stolen in the Lancashire area alone.
The animal organisation, which unites dogs and their owners, says cruel scammers and conmen are posing as dognappers targeting unsuspecting pet lovers in the area.
Clare Gresty, Dog Lost’s north west coordinator and police liaison, says some dogs have even been stolen at knife point.
She told Lancs Live : “We have had owners being held at knife point in the south and we deal with so many cases; some are truly horrific.
"There are other cases where the dogs have been left in the garden, and others, where they have been taken on a walk.”
The latest heartbreaking incidents saw scammers posing as genuine buyers to dog owners by using fake IDs, a fake banking app and a cloned vehicle registration plate to persuade that they were genuine.
The heartless scammers made off with five dogs including two Cavapoo puppies in this way, and also prised two Pomeranian puppies and a dachshund from other devastated owners.
Claire added: “When the pair of men have left, the owners have checked their bank accounts to see if the money has gone in, and it was not there, because it was never sent in the first place.
“The distraught owners have let their pups go without doing proper research, and all dogs should be microchipped. But owners of a pair of Pomeranian puppies were told they would be sent £3,800.
“The scammers showed proof, or what they said was proof, that they were genuine, with what turned out to be fake ID, a fake driving licence and a cloned vehicle registration, then they left with the pups.
“The owner let the men go thinking they were going to get nearly £4,000, so the men left with the pups but when the owners checked their bank account, there was nothing.
"She’s distraught, as she doesn’t know where the puppies are, and now she’s terrified for her safety as well as the puppies as this scammer knows where she lives; they have actually been in the family home.”
A further sickening twist has seen a different con man posing as a dog thief and blackmailing desperate owners who have lost their dogs out of hundreds of pounds.
Claire added: “I speak to this person on a regular basis as he knows I’m the Dog Lost coordinator in the north west.
“Some owners have paid thousands of pounds to him and they genuinely believe he’s got their dog. He poses as a dognapper - we all know his voice - and he pretends to have their dogs, saying things like, pay £500 now or I will slit your dog’s throat.”
“It’s a money roller,” says Claire, adding: “Dog theft can be very traumatic and some owners’ lives are never the same again. I really feel for them as it’s the not knowing for them.
“If your dog has passed away, you can grieve for them, but these owners are left wondering what conditions their dogs might be left in.
"Have they been used for bait, or have they been kept in cages for breeding? It literally traumatises them.”
In a post on Dog Lost’s Facebook page,the group said: “Please be vigilant when advertising your pets for sale. Scammers are contacting owners and offering the perfect home for your pet.
"They are sending money through a fraudulent banking app, and will show you the money has been transferred.
"You will NOT receive this payment. They are using fake ID which they will allow you to take a picture of, making you believe they are genuine.
"They may ask you to take a photo of their vehicle registration, again making you believe they are genuine – these will actually be cloned vehicles.
"If you have been a victim to this scam, please contact your local Police force, and e-mail the information to us.
"Please also contact Action Fraud and report the crime to them.”
Recent data has revealed that dog thefts nationwide have hit a seven-year high.
Around 2,760 dogs were stolen last year, which is a rise of 16 per cent since 2015, according to figures compiled by Direct Line Pet Insurance, who say the most targeted breeds are Jack Russell terriers, French bulldogs, chihuahuas and pugs.
Madeline Pike, veterinary nurse for Direct Line Pet Insurance said: “Sadly dog theft appears to be is on the rise in Lancashire, with the number of dogs reported as stolen rising for the past three years, reaching a record high of 116 last year. This is the fourth highest figure recorded across UK police forces.
“However, while the number of thefts across Lancashire has been rising, so too has the number of returned dogs. Nearly half of these dogs, 51 animals, were returned to their owners last year. This is more than four times higher than the number officially returned five years ago, when just 12 dogs, or 11 per cent of those stolen, were found.
“While the high return rate in Lancashire, which is nearly double the national average, is testament to the hard work of the police in reuniting pets with their owners, we would warn owners that the huge increase in the number of people getting pet dogs over lockdown has made dog theft a lucrative industry for thieves.
“Pet owners should take every precaution to keep their pet safe, including not leaving their dog tied up outside a shop or inside an empty car and keeping it on the lead when in busy areas.
"It is important that a dog’s microchip registration holds the correct information, otherwise this could make it difficult to reunite a pet with their owner.”
A spokesperson for Lancashire Police said: "We were called on May 5 after a report of fraud in Leyland. It was reported two red cavapoo puppies had been fraudulently bought from an owner.
"The matter is under investigation and enquiries ongoing.
"We were called on May 9 after a report of fraud in Leyland.
"It was reported two Pomeranian dogs had been fraudulently bought from an owner on April 28. The matter is under investigation and enquiries ongoing."
Following a rise in reported dog thefts, the government revealed plans last year to sentence the thieves to up to five years in prison. It said it would add the new criminal offence to the Kept Animals Bill.