updated 08/12/2014 AT 1:00 PM ET
•originally published 08/13/2014 AT 7:15 AM ET
When Sunny, a 1-year-old Pomeranian, ran out of his Chicago backyard and into an alley, the pup’s owner tried to chase after him, but the dog scampered away too fast. She caught up just in time to see a woman escaping with Sunny under her arm.
Her shouts didn’t stop the thief, but it wasn’t long before she got a ransom call. Using contact information from Sunny’s tags, the alleged dognapper called the woman, 66, on Thursday, demanding $250.
“I have your dog, but what’s the reward?” the caller reportedly said, according to DNAinfo Chicago. “Because I ain’t giving it back unless I get a reward.”
Sunny’s owner went to police, who hatched a sting operation to ensnare the culprit. As they listened in, the victim phoned the dognapper and said she would meet the demands if her little Pom was returned, Chicago police tell PEOPLE. The thief agreed but threatened to shoot the elderly woman if she “got anyone else involved,” according to DNAInfo.
It’s just the latest example of an increasingly common crime. In 2013, dognappings were up 33 percent over the year before, with 609 dog thefts reported across the nation, according to 2013 statistics from the American Kennel Club. The full number could be even higher because not every theft is reported to the organization, Hillary Prim, AKC spokeswoman, tells PEOPLE.
A Crime with Two Victims
Police consider dogs as property, but it’s a particularly heartbreaking crime “with two victims at play, the owner and the dog,” she said. “Unlike other forms of property, victims of pet theft are often suffering from the loss of valued family members.”
Pit bulls and pit mixes were the most stolen dogs last year, followed by Yorkshire terriers, Chihuahuas, French bulldogs, Labrador retrievers and Pomeranians, the AKC says. And the rate shows no signs of slowing – so far in 2014, dog thefts are on pace to match last year’s numbers, though this year thieves seem to be targeting pit bulls and pit mixes, Yorkies, Chihuahuas, Rottweilers, German shepherds, bulldogs and Shih Tzus.
It’s a crime largely driven by economic factors, with thieves often motivated by the chance to get a ransom or to resell to others, Prim said.
Experts say that in order to ensure maximum protection, pet owners shouldn’t remove their dogs’ leash while out, or leave their pets unattended in the yard. The AKC also advises pet owners to refrain from disclosing to strangers how much their dog costs, or leaving the pooch alone in a car or tied outside a store. The organization also recommends that pet owners have their dogs microchipped (since collars and tags can be removed).
As for Sunny, he ended up back home safe and sound. When the alleged dognapper drove back with the furry tan-and-white Pom on her lap, police arrested her. Daniela Ramirez, 26, of Chicago was charged with phone harassment and theft, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office tells PEOPLE.
“I just thank God I got my puppy back,” Sunny’s owner, whose identity was not disclosed, told DNAinfo. “When you have a puppy for a long time, a puppy is just like your kid.”