Someone is snatching flags in Prince William County.

Nine flags, ranging in value from $15 to $150, have been stolen from poles and holders in the last two weeks. Prince William County police are investigating, but so far the identity of the banner bandits remains a mystery.

The first reported flag theft occurred on the night of Jan. 30 at the home of one of the county's more illustrious residents, state Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William).

"I can't think of a lower trick than someone stealing your flag," Colgan said. "There were three thefts on our street. One family has a son in the Persian Gulf, and we helped raise the boy. We put the flags up, with lights and everything. One night they all disappeared. My wife is not easily upset, but she called me down in Richmond to tell me about it and she was very upset."

Flag sales have increased by as much as 75 percent in some local stores since the United States began air attacks against Iraq on Jan. 16. Prince William County police say the thefts mirror the general demand for Old Glory.

Five of the flags stolen in Prince William were taken from brackets; four were stolen from poles by thieves who simply pulled them down by their cords, owners said.

County police are not amused. Police Sgt. Harold Morgan said he believes some of the thefts were committed by youths. "Sometimes you have them going on these scavenger hunts where they steal things," he said.

"I went outside to put some yellow ribbons on the flag for our troops in the Persian Gulf, and that's when I found out it was gone," said Barbara Carruthers, who has lost her $30 flag twice to thieves at her Manassas home. "I said, 'Oh, great. I've got yellow ribbons and no flag.' " After the first theft, Carruthers found her flag in the middle of the street and put it back in front of her house. It was taken again.

Mary Rector of Woodbridge, who had two flags taken from atop a 15-foot pole in her front yard, last saw her flag about 11 p.m. on Feb. 10, just before she went to bed. "The wind was blowing, you know, and . . . it was making kind of a cracking sound."

The next morning when she opened her drapes to let in the sunshine, she noticed her flag was gone. "I was so upset. I thought, 'Who in the world would steal a flag?' My neighbor next door got hers stolen too."

Seven of the flags disappeared in Manassas; two were pilfered from porches in Woodbridge. Police spokeswoman Kim D. Chinn said stealing a flag of up to $200 in value is petty larceny punishable by up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Rector and Carruthers both owned flags that had been flown over the U.S. Capitol. Carruthers's husband got his when he retired after 32 years in the Air Force. When she discusses the theft, her voice cracks with anger.

"The police asked me what it was worth and I said about $30, but it has sentimental value you can't put a price tag on."

"I just think they would have to be very dirty to steal the American flag, let me tell you," Rector said. "I just hope someone doesn't have it on the back end of their pickup truck. I couldn't stand that."