LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- "Excuse me. Have you seen this dog?"
It's a heartbreaking question repeated by dog owners all over Southern California as pet thefts increase across the area.
Karen Chamberlain was victimized last November when robbers ransacked her apartment and made off with her 4-pound Maltese, Jack.
"It was like someone stealing your heart out of you," Chamberlain said.
According to one animal welfare group, Jack is among the estimated 2 million pets that were stolen in the U.S. last year.
Thieves are stealing beloved pets from cars, front yards and neighborhood businesses -- all in broad daylight -- and then selling the animals for a profit.
Vicki Siedow, a private investigator, says pet theft is a booming business.
"There are so many now that are going missing that I could be working full-time doing that if I wanted to," said Siedow.
Some criminals sell them online.
"I routinely cover Craigslist, eBay, Amazon," said Siedow.
Some thieves ransom the dogs back or pretend they found the dog to collect a reward. Others cash in by selling dogs into a much worse fate.
Siedow says in some cases, the stolen pets are turned into bait dogs, which are used as practice to train other dogs in fight rings.
Animal attorney Jill Ryther runs a non-profit that works to change how animals are seen in the eyes of the law.
"Dogs are stolen from cars, they're stolen from homes, and the people aren't deterred from doing that because there's not a lot of stiff penalties," said Ryther.
The penalties are similar to those for petty theft. Ryther thinks they should be much tougher.
Some say one problem is that the tiny microchips used to identify pets vary depending on the manufacturer. So veterinarians can't always locate a chip in a dog that could have been stolen and sold to a new owner.
If you're a dog owner, changing microchip technology or how the law sees animals may seem out of your control. But there are some things you can do to make sure you and your best friend are not victims of dog theft.
"Obviously, not leaving your pets out alone, you know, when you're not there watching them," said Siedow.
Another tip: if people approach you, don't give out specific information about your pet. Being a purebred, for example, could make your dog more of a target.
And don't dog shop on sites like Craigslist.
"You generally don't get what you think you're getting," said Siedow.