Reporting Stolen Pets: are the Police our Friend or Foe?
Reporting Stolen Pets: are the Police our Friend or Foe?
Victims of pet theft often feel they are banging their heads against a brick wall.
This blog exposes the shocking flaws in the microchipping system and inadequate police resources.
Read about a victim's near-seven year struggle to find her stolen cat. Red-tape, data protection, and excuse-after-excuse have prevented Clooney the Siamese cat from being reunited with his rightful owner...
And herein lies the most absurd parallel between law makers and law breakers: the law also considers our beloved pets as mere objects. How can this be? Sentience and trauma gives no added value to their worth with pet thieves being all too often let off the legal leash. Under the Theft Act 1968 our furry companions are treated much the same as any other personal possession. You might be perplexed to learn that lead piping, bicycles and wild mushrooms have been selected as being worthy of their own category under this Act and criminals dealt with under specific penalties allied to their categorisation, but not so our precious family members. The penalty for stealing our pets is calculated solely on their monetary value. Replacement value in pounds and pence - not for a something, but a someone. A someone who is utterly irreplaceable. Yet most owners know that what makes them priceless is all that is nebulous and incalculable: companionship and love. So far there is scant room for emotion in legislation and yet most of us - MPs and police officers alike - consider our pet cats and dogs as treasured members of the family. To some they are their only family.
So why are our lawmakers stubbornly refusing to reflect this and what happens when we try to report our pets, particularly our feline family, as stolen to the police?
Clooney: a brief background to his story
I carry the story of Clooney's theft heavily; it is with me every single day I have been without him. This madly loved male seal-point Siamese was taken in June 2013 from his spoilt and protected existence in rural Norfolk. It would have been unthinkable for me not to have given him the added security of a microchip and the protection of being neutered because I already knew how important he was to my world - and me to his. He was most definitely a strikingly noticeable boy and, being a desirable breed, also vulnerable. I felt somewhat shielded living down a quiet unmade lane with no through access since our position limited his exposure to dog walkers, horse riders or couriers.
And yet location served as no protection from theft that summer's day.
Clooney was undoubtedly a very indulged family member and predictably I raised an irresistibly demanding cat-brat of epic proportions: comical, loving and needy with a toweringly impressive ability to observe and reason to the point where he had worked out how to gain access to everywhere and anywhere in his home. His biggest access frustration however was the irritatingly regimented, curfew-imposing cat flap, restricting his garden access to a few golden daylight hours of relative freedom.
I have learned to my endless cost that limiting outside playtime also proved to be no obstacle to pet theft.
As you might imagine this is but a tiny glimpse of the backdrop to Clooney's story to touch on the elements pertinent to his vulnerability to theft, but from here my focus is primarily concentrated on how police attitude and engagement affects the victims of pet theft and the outcome. This is a perniciously evil crime and has a lasting effect that I doubt the theft of any object could ever have. Do our police recognise this?
A Diary of Disinterest: Police Encounters and Triggering EventsJune 2013: Norfolk Constabulary: Reporting Clooney as missing/suspected theft. Dismissed instantly as missing not theft. 'Cats wander' and 'He will come home in a few days'. No report made or Crime Reference Number (CRN) given.
Late June 2013: Reporting Clooney as stolen. Dismissed citing the unique status of cats and their Right to Roam - cats therefore cannot be stolen was the attitude. Unless there was concrete evidence of theft a missing cat was just that: Missing. Courier driver who had lingered in the drive was flagged up as a possible focus for investigation. Still no CRN for Clooney and nothing recorded.
Police support from the outset would certainly have taken some of the emotional burden but it wasn't until the intervening years that I did actually secure police interest in Clooney's case. I had a phone call demanding reward money or I'd never see Clooney again. Action Fraud unhesitatingly issued a CRN. What a sad indictment of our priorities that extortion is clearly a tangible crime worthy of immediate recognition; it seems however, that the freedoms of our feline companions and the resultant ambiguity over their status, often consigns the notion of cat theft to the police bin of mythological crime. To my troubled mind this felt like an insult to all I had lost. Money was nothing to me; a loved and stolen family member was everything.
Police involvement and a CRN recognising the theft of Clooney was secured years later by a chance encounter of the fortuitous kind. How ironic that this should have been in the Houses of Parliament at the Pet Theft Debate, campaigning alongside the wonderfully tenacious SAMPA founders for pets to be recognised as a category in their own right. It had been over five and a half years of soul-destroying, empty leads until this opened the door to a discovery that has proved to be so painfully bitter-sweet.
26/02/19 Pet Theft Debate, Houses of Parliament, Westminster. Introduced to the CEO promoting new PetScanner microchip scanner which uses phone app to alert if chip number entered on chip checker sites. Decided this was worth a purchase.
01/03/19: Registered Clooney and subscribed to alerts. PetScanner came up with the following historical searches:
12/10/2018: PetScanner Alert: Clooney's chip number checked on PETtrac Website (Chip Checker).
03/02/2019: PetScanner Alert: Clooney's chip number checked on Petlog Website (Chip Checker). No follow up check of ownership details with Identibase possible.
Was this proof that Clooney was alive and with someone? If my boy hadn't been scanned then how else would they have got hold of his unique 15 digit chip number to look it up - and why? Of course I called PetScanner immediately and although they were both encouraging and helpful, it soon became apparent that these generic home page look-ups have no way of being traceable to the where and the who - only that someone, somewhere, had wanted to look Clooney up. Someone in possession of his chip number.
01/03/2019:Contacted Identibase to see if they have any record of the two Chip checks reported by PetScanner. Advised that their system was not set up to record such searches but confirmed that two different, full searches were carried out within 24 hours in March 2018 by someone using access PIN codes assigned to two separate veterinary surgeries! Identibase immediately disclosed who these were. (They've since explained that they were unable to inform us at the time this happened because their system was not set up to trigger alerts to staff or customers from accounts accessed).
I invite you to take that in for a moment... Surely I can't be alone in being somewhat horrified to learn that someone, with all the invisibility and stealth of a real-life cat burglar, can silently gain entry to your microchip account, rifle through its personal details and then surreptitiously tip-toe away without anyone at the database company noticing the digital footprint that is left behind. And all this whilst we have a missing flag flapping desperately on our account. 'I am missing!' it shouts - and the echo must surely be 'I am loved' because we microchipped them. Because we want them found if ever they are lost or stolen. (In the wake of Clooney's case this has been challenged, discussed and I have been informed that the necessary changes to the system are in the development stage. Good news indeed).
26/03/2018: 17:45 hours: Clooney's Chip number entered by somebody on Identibase main database using Vet ID code and individual password for Wigmore Veterinary Practice in Rainham, Kent. Missing flag and personal details accessed including name, address, contact details and Clooney's information relating to DOB, neutered status etc. Digital footprint left, identifying veterinary practice confirmed by Identibase but not until March 2019 following specific enquiry. No contact from either Identibase advising of the data access nor from the person carrying out the search.
27/03/2018: 14:05 hours: Clooney's Chip number entered by somebody on Identibase main database using Vet ID code and individual password for The Crossings Veterinary Practice in Downham Market.Missing flag and personal details accessed including name, address, contact details and Clooney's information relating to DOB, neutered status etc. Digital footprint left, identifying veterinary practice confirmed by Identibase but not until March 2019 following specific enquiry. No contact from either Identibase advising of the data access nor from the person carrying out the search.
I cannot begin to describe the soaring hope that this revelation had handed me. I got off the phone and wept with all the suppressed pain of years of loss without answers. Were my answers just a phone call away....? Did I dare allow myself such an unguarded expectation? Clooney simply had to be with someone somewhere and what's more, I had the name of the vet practices who had accessed his details the year before. I didn't permit any thought as to the failures that had resulted in me not being informed at the time it had happened; I was just too full of nervous exhilaration; fearful trepidation; any and every emotion that I had kept a lid on until now.
01/03/19: Multiple telephone calls over the next couple of weeks to Wigmore surgery and the Crossings veterinary practice. Neither can explain why the searches were undertaken or suggest who accessed Clooney's account. Both claim that Clooney's chip number is not recorded against any of their registered clients or consults. Asked for RTA records to be checked and informed neither work with rescue cats for local animal charities which might account him being brought in but not recorded on veterinary client records.
I have no words here. Just a creeping, familiar numbness...
02/03/19: Ascertained from Identibase that neither surgery searched any other microchip number immediately after accessing Clooney's account (or at any time during the day in question) in order to mitigate the possibility that Clooney's chip number was entered erroneously.
This proved a very useful pre-emptive initiative since one of the vets did indeed propose, by way of a definitive explanation, that it was simply a mis-typing of Clooney's number that led to his account being accessed. They were invited to prove that they had a pet on their client/consultation records with near identical chip number to account for this. This was declined.
14/03/2019: Emails sent to both vets explaining the history of Clooney's disappearance, reinforcing that I had no desire to cause any difficulties and that I would be prepared to let Clooney stay where he was if that was appropriate and asking officially for their help to get to the bottom of the look-up. Friendly, collaborative exchanges were very much my preferred option but following an abrupt cessation of verbal communications with one surgery in particular, it was necessary to formalise and recruit some uniformed clout behind the real victim in this theatre of theft: Clooney.
22/03/2019: Kent Police via DogLost involvement. Doglost get involved offering to publicise the news of the searches in Kent and Downham Market and pursue the matter with their contacts at Kent Police. Unfortunately, after a promising start and a long eight weeks later, Kent Police decline to investigate as Clooney was stolen from Norfolk. We are therefore advised to involve Norfolk Constabulary ourselves.
May 2019: Norfolk Constabulary contacted. Several communications later they agree to send an officer to our house to interview us. The PC assigned to our case, misses first appointment. He telephones the next day to ask if he could carry out the interview over the phone. We explain this would not be acceptable.
25/05/19: PC duly attends our home and after seeing location and hearing the story accepts that Clooney was indeed stolen. However, he seems more interested in the possibility that one or both of our daughters might have stolen him and the data protection implications of us having contact details for the Courier driver than on questioning him and the veterinary practices about why they had undertaken searches for Clooney's chip number! Advises that a CRN would be allocated but that the case will be immediately closed as there was nothing they could do to assist. PC given copies of all correspondence to vets and was persuaded to reopen case. He agreed to contact the courier driver and write to the two veterinary practices.
13/06/19: PC emails vets.
We had been at pains to explain to the PC, both verbally and via back-up email, that this is no longer about a historically missing cat, but that the chip searches were proof that Clooney had indeed been stolen as I had tried reporting six years previously. These veterinary practices had to be the source of our answers somehow, despite their protestations of non-involvement. We had no interest in being unreasonable and were prepared to believe that the vets themselves knew nothing, that there was a possibility that Clooney had been scanned by a third party maybe even outside of their surgeries, but what we did know - and there was proof of - was that someone with Clooney's microchip number, using the vet surgery PIN code and password, had accessed my account. Clearly it was not for reunification purposes as I had not been contacted despite the up-to-date details and the missing flag - so why were his details looked up?
"In order for missing pets to be reunited, authorised organisations such as vet practices, rescue centres, charities etc, need to be able to access registered keeper details and when used in this way, this is not a breach of GDPR" (Privacy Coordinator AnimalCare UK, parent company Identibase, in reply to my request for clarification and confirmation).
So if the motive for these data accesses were not 'in order for missing pets (Clooney) to be reunited' was this therefore a GDPR breach? What's more, if no practice staff member with authorisation owns up to scanning Clooney and there's no record of him on the client database nor consult records in either surgery, was this an unauthorised access by someone not formally associated with the practice and a safeguarding issue of practice login details? An alternative needs exploration: perhaps it was an unauthorised look-up by an authorised person who is staying silent? So many thoughts... I invite yours please.
19/06/2019: Complaint made to ICO about inappropriate accessing of personal data. This was followed by multiple calls and correspondence which won't be explored in this account.
25/05/19: PC phones to advise on results of enquiries. He reported that the courier driver knows nothing about our cat (he most certainly knew about Clooney since we paid him to deliver fliers on his rounds) and predictably, that both vets also denied having Clooney in their practice on the day in question (which we knew!). PC reports that Clooney's case is now again closed. Strong protestation from us following suspicions of inadequate questioning, requesting a call from a superior to discuss case and ineffectual police action.
25/05/19: Call from Sergeant S reinforcing decision to close case. However, reading case notes entered by PC, he realises that the investigation was very much incomplete given that one of the vet practices had in fact refused to answer police questions, insisting on my permission for disclosure citing GDPR.
And this on a case that was opened at my request! It was very alarming that we had been expressly told that BOTH surgeries had confirmed that Clooney had not been recorded as being present at their surgery that day and on the back of the two vets' responses the case had been closed.
26/05/19: Case again reopened having given my verbal authorisation for the vet to release information regarding Clooney and to secure the vet's cooperation and response.
26/06/2019: Email to RCVS and RCMS. Separate issue for a different blog!
15/07/19: Disclosure Form sent to vet for their response from Sergeant S.
08/08/19: Sergeant S announces via letter that his investigation is complete. Vet's response was to suggest that Identibase system is at fault. Case is again closed on the basis that Sergeant S is 'inclined to agree' but without even contacting Identibase for their response to the allegations of culpability!
19/08/2019: Emailed Sgt S contesting decision to close the case since they hadn't spoken with Identibase who could confirm that the searches had taken place and that there was no fault with their system as verbally confirmed to me. No reply or acknowledgement.
19/08/19: Subject Access Request (SAR) applied for to Norfolk Constabulary to be able to view Clooney's case notes.
23/08/2019: Letter to Police and Crime Commissioner. No response.
03/09/19: Follow up email to Sergeant S as no response to previous. No reply received to this either.
05/09/19: Three Recorded Delivery letters posted to Chief Exec of Identibase parent company advising them that the vets had implicated their system as being at fault and that this would remain as the case conclusion, inviting their response. Specifically requested confirmation of the integrity of their processes and systems to offer chance to counter vets' claims in the absence of police action. Also requested corroboration of digital footprint on Clooney's account and to outline their authorisation access policy.
10/09/19: Reply received as requested.
Sept/Oct: Various communications, both email and verbal, continue across multiple organisations.
16/10/20: Called to chase up the non-appearance of the Subject Access Request (SAR) for Clooney's case notes to be informed that many had gone astray in the police system and to apply again!
16/10/20: Expedited SAR received. Case notes were massively redacted.
How heart-sinking to read that the police investigation consisted of just one question - and that one was based on an inaccurate representation of our report.
"I was informed this cat (Clooney) was seen at your surgery in 2018. Would you be able to check this information for me and reply to this email?" (SAR entry recording email to vets)
I'm quite sure there isn't a suitable emoji for my feelings on absorbing the uselessness of such an 'investigation'! I feel compelled to mention the perturbing revelation from the original PC when he came to our house to take our opening statement about police budgetary guidelines. In essence, he had alluded to a policy whereby the budget for the investigation was very much aligned to the value of the item. Clooney wasn't 'worth' very much so the cost of any investigation would quickly surpass his value and therefore the case would be closed immediately after issuing a CRN. Tumbleweed moment... Basically, what we had just processed was that the impact of the crime wasn't a consideration; that justice is a limited commodity, and cats don't quite come up to scratch - pedigree claws or otherwise. Given this, isn’t it screamingly obvious then that the quality of each intervention is therefore paramount and designed to extract maximum benefit to the investigation? None of the precious budget should be frittered on predictably hopeless questioning that would allow for an equally hope-lessening answer. Interestingly there was no entry for the PC's conversation with the courier on which he reported to us, unless it was contained within the redacted sections. I can't help but speculate as to why that would be concealed from us or not recorded as an entry. The SAR document certainly confirmed our fears and fired up our impetus for the next challenge.
|Clooney the Protector|
15/11/19: Contacted by new Inspector T assigned to our case who offered his apologies on behalf of the police, agreeing that the investigations had been neither effective nor robust. This reassuringly sympathetic attitude manifested into a declaration that he would be approaching the vets again.
At last a glimmer of commitment and understanding! Finally, I feel I have someone guiding the investigation who respects the individual merits of each case. The crucial element of empathy that had been lacking in our previous police encounters made itself known when he admitted that he himself shares his lap with a feline felon and that had she been stolen and scanned, he would want action. I smile and breathe...
14/01/2020: PetScanner alert: Clooney's chip number checked on Animal Care Website (Chip Checker)
14/01/2020: Call to Identibase to ask if there had been a corresponding full data access of our account. Disappointingly the look-up had halted at the home page stage, but our contact offered to consult the IT dept to see if the IP address of the search had been stored and was retrievable. This was one of the changes to their IT systems that had been upgraded following the failures exposed by Clooney's case.
Wouldn't it be wonderful for him to be a beneficiary of his own legacy!
15/01/20: Returned call from Identibase advising us that the IP address had been retrieved but that data protection restrictions meant it could not be revealed to us.
15/01/2020: Conversation with Inspector T advising him of this new activity on Clooney's account. He readily agrees to apply to Identibase for its release and to investigate.
Vets reply discussed: no further information following new responses but suggested we concentrate on new lead with a view to discussing strategy re veterinary surgeries later.
18/02/20: Email received outlining where we are with IP address. Reassuring news that whilst it is not a simple process and IP is dynamic, the Covert Authorities Bureau and Cyber Crime Team are researching it. I have been advised that whilst it is not a straightforward task, it is achievable! It will however take several weeks.
Currently we wait...
Can Clooney's story teach us anything for the future?
Cats have few legal protections: does this set the template for police attitude?The crux of the problem we are facing as pet owners, especially pets of the purry variety, is that this kind of furry 'personal object' in law just happens to be property on four legs that can walk themselves into trouble - and there is no shortage of police officers willing to remind you of that fact. It's convenient for our police to create a e-fit profile of the average feline and apply it universally across the species - as they did when I first reported Clooney. But only you know your companion, their character and their routine. I can say with unshakable certainty that Clooney most definitely did not walk; my boy was taken and I bitterly regret not asserting this with more force at the outset. But why should I have had to wait until the evidence of his theft had come to light years later to be able to secure the vital CRN? Clearly the police have limited resources and guidelines concerning budgetary constraints for investigations, but a CRN costs relatively little and ensures that you have the necessary ammunition should there be a subsequent ownership battle and you need the services of a solicitor. What's more, each CRN provides legitimacy to the need for more protections in law for our cats. How poignant it was to be compiling and analysing data from police FOIs on cat theft across the forces to know that my own beloved stolen Siamese was absent from those statistics. If my experiences were anything to go by, recorded cases of cat theft are criminally unrepresentative of the reality and scale of the heartbreak out there.
Our irreplaceable cats have nine precious lives, so fight for them all to be spent where they belong - with you.
But perhaps the most important lesson of all when it comes to securing that crucial uniformed clout to your crusade? Just keep going until you find the police inspector who has cat hair on their uniform - he's your man!
21st March 2020
If you feel any of the issues raised in Clooney's story need addressing, please sign these two important petitions calling for change to our laws by clicking on the links below.
#Ferns Law. Compulsory to scan & check microchips to reunite stolen dogs, cats.
#PetTheftReform. Make pet theft crime a specific offence with custodial sentences.
My huge thanks to Richard Jordan, founder member Pet Theft Awareness, for your support and work to raise awareness of this crime. Also to Debbie Matthews for unfailing commitment to the campaign for compulsory microchipping/scanning and Dan Allen for research and petitions to challenge the laws.