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Dognapping gangs targeting lone women as puppies are now worth more than drugs

Lone women walking puppies are being targeted by organised crime gangs as the value of their animals soars in lockdown.

Pedigree breeds can fetch up to £3,500 on the black market as breeders struggle to keep up with demand.

Now people are being warned about walking pets alone in isolated spots after a series of attempted snatches last week.

On Wednesday, two men with a fake RSPCA badge on their van approached Ceira Fleming, 23, who was jogging with collie-cross Callie near Poole, Dorset.

She said: “They told me my dog matched the description of a stolen dog and they would have to take her for tests.

“The men weren’t in uniform. When I started to ask questions, one of them looked annoyed and started to get out. I slammed his door shut and ran off.”

Lauren Barnes, 28, was confronted by two men while walking her £3,000 golden retriever puppy Bentley near Horsham, West Sussex, at 10.30am.

She said: “A white unmarked Transit van suddenly veered alongside me.

“Two men in black woollen hats were staring at my dog. The passenger started to get out but I pulled out my phone to take their picture and they sped off.

“They looked really menacing. I think they targeted me because I was a young woman out alone with a nice puppy.”

Criminals can make more money from selling puppies than drugs.

Demand has rocketed as families with time on their hands in lockdown decide to buy a fashionable pet.

The value of chow chows, dachshunds, pugs and bulldogs has risen by nearly 75 per cent since March, with pugs leaping from £684 to £1,220 and French bulldogs from £1,251 to £2,128, according to the Dogs Trust.

The RSPCA said they were hearing of more attacks on lone dog owners and added: “It’s worrying.”

Debbie Matthews of SAMPA, the Stolen and Missing Pets Alliance, said: “It’s important for the public at large to be vigilant when out walking their dogs.

“Be dog theft aware. Nowhere is safe from these monsters.”

Sussex Police said: “Our rural crime team are gathering intelligence and highlighting crime prevention advice among the dog-owning community.”

In the UK around 2,000 dogs are reported stolen each year but only 5% end in a conviction, with usually just a fine. Campaigners want tougher sentences.