GREENVILLE, N.C. (WNCT) — An Eastern Carolina woman is making it her life’s mission to help reunite families with their stolen pets. Patty Richardson says she knows from personal experience that it can be hard when a dog is missing.

“Five years ago, if someone had asked me or suggested that someone would actually steal your pet, I would have said ‘You’re crazy. That would never happen’,” says Patty Richardson.

Now, she is a private investigator specializing in animal cases. He dog was stolen in 2010 and she is still working to track down the person responsible. She says “dog flipping” is a serious crime and is happening right now in Eastern North Carolina.

“Dog flipping is when someone steals your dog and then they flip it for money,” says Richardson.

Pitt County Sheriff Neil Elks says his office is aware of many situations similar to this.

“We have dogs that are disappearing, can never be found,” says Sheriff Neil Elks. “A lot of people think the dogs have just run off. Others think their dogs have gotten into an accident and got killed somewhere and they haven’t been able to find them. But, we’re always suspicious that these dogs have been stolen and sold.”

Tracking and solving the cases can be difficult because many suspects cross county and even state lines.

“Often time, our investigation reveals that the dogs are sold a couple counties away,” says Elks. “Maybe even out of state.”

Richardson says she has been able to reunite some owners with their pips thanks to papers and microchips. She suggests having your dog chipped immediately and if your pet is missing, she is here to help.

“If your dog’s not normally one that disappears or normally doesn’t go out and then come back home it worth looking at could there be more to it than what I’m thinking,” says Richardson.

Elks says if community members have any details about animal cruelty or stolen pets, contact his office immediately. He attributes many of the solved cases to the help of the community.