Police urge calm as Havering dog theft rumours fuel panic
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Police have urged Havering residents to stop posting online about a perceived rise in dog thefts.
The Met said there was no evidence of an increase and the posts were causing panic.
But dog-owners said they were “petrified”, with some fearful of even leaving the house.
Rainham MP Jon Cruddas said he had been contacted by numerous residents with concerns about a “spate of dognapping incidents”.
Lockdown has fuelled a surge in demand for dogs and therefore prices. Freedom of Information requests by the BBC to 26 police forces found that around half had seen an increase in dog thefts, with some areas seeing cases double.
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“I am petrified to take my little dog out now,” said one owner on a Facebook group called Stop Dog Thefts Havering. She will not even leave it unattended on her own property, as "people are even taking them from gardens," she claimed.
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“I won’t go out alone anymore and if I see a white van I panic,” said another, who felt the problem was “getting worse by the day.”
But the truth, said Inspector Lisa Ryan is that only one offence of theft or attempted theft of dogs in Havering has been reported to police this year.
On New Year’s Day, nine puppies and their mother were stolen from an address in Petersfield Avenue, Harold Wood.
Police are still investigating and have made no arrests.
Since then, the only other reported pet theft in Havering was of a fish.
“I appreciate that members of the public are looking to help when they circulate information via social media platforms,” said Inspector Ryan.
“However, I would ask they don’t do this as it can cause panic and alarm.”
'I barely walk my dog anymore'
The Recorder spoke to one woman who said she had reported two suspected dognappers to police.
Tracey*, from Romford, said she barely takes her dogs out for walks anymore. She doesn’t want her real name in the paper, as she fears for their safety.
“I’m not a nervous person but it just isn’t worth the risk, with everything that’s been going on,” she said.
She said she became worried last month after hearing that a neighbour had fought off a man who pulled up alongside her and tried to snatch her dog.
Now she only walks her dogs if her partner finishes work early enough to accompany her.
At around 7.30pm on Monday, March 8, they walked the dogs for the first time in about a week.
“As we walked up Parkside Avenue, I noticed a white van started to slow down behind us,” she said.
Inside she saw two men.
“They slowly drove past us, looking at our dogs. Then they turned around and started coming back. They drove on the wrong side of the road, pulled next to us and just sat there, looking.”
The couple spotted a man on his driveway and stood near him until the men drove off.
“If that man hadn’t been there, I do believe they would have tried to take them,” she said. “They didn’t even try to hide the fact that they were looking at the dogs.”
As soon as they got home, said Tracey, they called the police.
The Met said it could not find the report on its system, but said it may have been logged as intelligence, not a crime.
"Some people are saying they’re struggling to get crime reference numbers when they do report things," said Nicholas West.
On March 8, the 26-year-old Hornchurch filmmaker set up a Facebook group, Stop Dog Thefts Havering.
Within a week, it had 650 members and almost 40 posts.
“I was really struggling to get to sleep because I was worried that my dogs would be stolen,” said Nicholas.
“On Facebook, it felt like I was seeing a couple a day, which was really, deeply worrying.”
Since launching the group, said Nicholas, “We actually haven’t had anybody directly report that they’ve had a dog stolen in Havering.”
But reports of suspicious activity have included a white van parked near the Albion pub in Rainham, and two men seen at Upminster Park with dog leads “but no dogs in sight”.
Some Facebook users have even warned not to post photos of pets online.
“There will be people on here monitoring you all and your dogs,” one claimed. “Be very careful. Not everyone is as they seem.”
Inspector Ryan said there is “no evidence to suggest that criminals are monitoring social media and looking for dogs to steal".
Nicholas said it was “really positive” that no thefts had been reported and he hoped the group would help prevent dognappings.
“I love my dogs so much" he said. “I really felt for all the owners who have had their dogs stolen. What upset me the most is that the dogs just won’t understand what’s going on. It’s really cruel.”
*The Met said thefts or attempted thefts should be reported to 101.