A child's tearful tale of a missing hamster is being used by a callous thief to get into pensioners' homes.
The child, possibly as young as 10, has knocked on doors in Teesside and Darlington claiming his pet has wandered into the garden.
While the householders have been distracted and enticed into a search, an adult has entered their homes and taken cash, wallets or bags.
In one case a pensioner was punched in the head and his wallet snatched.
The hamster ruse has been used in four raids in Cleveland - two in Langbaurgh, one in Middlesbrough and one in Stockton - and two in Darlington, County Durham.
The boy is described as white, about 5ft tall with brown hair and speaking with a noticeable impediment, possibly a stammer.
The man he was with is also white, 6ft tall in his early 20s, slim with dark hair and speaks with a North East accent.
The pair are thought to be linked with other distraction burglaries throughout Cleveland in which other cons have been used to gain entry to homes.
Det Chief Supt John Kelly said: "This latest series of raids has seen such criminal activity sink even lower.
"Many old folk are simply too trusting and the sight of a tearful boy on the door steps looking for a pet is enough to entice them outside and give the accomplice the chance to ransack their home."
Police are urging anyone with information or who has been approached by the pair to contact them.