Lock your cars! Vehicle Theft Peaks in the COVID-19 Pandemic

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LOS ANGELES (AP) – Coronavirus has not been kind to car owners.

With more people than ever staying at home to reduce the spread of COVID-19, their sedans, vans and SUVs are parked unattended on the streets, making them easy targets for opportunistic thieves.

Despite silent streets and almost non-existent traffic, vehicle theft increased 63% in New York and almost 17% in Los Angeles from January 1 to mid-May, compared to the same period last year .

And many other law enforcement agencies in the United States are reporting an increase in stolen cars and vehicle burglaries, although violent crime has dropped dramatically nationwide in the coronavirus pandemic. It’s a low-risk crime with a potentially high reward, police say, especially when many drivers leave their doors unlocked or their keys inside.

“You might as well put a sticker on the window that says” come get my stuff, “said an exasperated Alex Villanueva, the Los Angeles County sheriff.

In Austin, Texas, last month, 72% of the 322 stolen vehicles had their keys nearby. The total number of auto thefts increased by about 50% in April, and vehicle burglaries increased by 2% from April 2019.

The virus created a “perfect storm,” said Austin police sergeant. Chris Vetrano, a supervisor in the theft unit of 11 auto detectors who investigates cases of stolen vehicles.

The elements of this storm: drivers are at home and do not use or check their cars regularly. School is over, so teens are trying their luck. Criminals are out of work and have more free time or need money quickly to support a drug-using habit.

“You can access the Internet these days and learn to get into vehicles by just searching YouTube,” said Vetrano.

(He should know: Someone broke into his locked Ford F-150 pickup truck, one of the most stolen vehicles, about a year ago.)

Salt Lake City police detective Greg Wilking said that 22% of vehicle burglaries could have come from a few criminals working quickly on “car prowlers.”

“It’s really 10 seconds,” he said. “They don’t spend a lot of time in your car. It’s a smash-and-grab-and-go, “sometimes in broad daylight.

Wilking is concerned that the numbers will continue to rise as “people become more desperate over time.”

In Baltimore, however, an effort to reduce the historically high number of vehicle thefts and burglaries seems to have paid off. Auto theft dropped 24% and stolen vehicles dropped 19% from January to May compared to the same period last year.

Patrol leader Colonel Richard Worley credits the energetic efforts in part to reminding residents to lock their cars, bring their keys home and park in well-lit areas. In this case, however, the pandemic actually helped the police:

Residents are at home, drive less and watch the neighborhood, and officers now have the time to proactively patrol because calls for service and violent crime have decreased. A thief was recently arrested with 13 catalytic converters stolen during a motor vehicle stop.

Sometimes, however, it’s just a matter of luck. As with Lindsey Eldridge, the police community outreach coordinator, who left her keys in the cup holder of her car. She realized her mistake just before falling asleep.

As Worley said, “It could have been a statistic.”

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This story has been corrected to show that the quote was from Worley, not Eldridge.

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