Car Theft: Regional Auto Theft Trends (Part 2)

April 8, 2019

It is important to keep tabs on crime patterns in different regions to understand types and methods of auto theft that could be headed to your area soon. Different agencies have recognized these regional patterns and discovered their own tactics to combat them, but regional task forces are still crucial in looking beyond a single prosecution to take down an entire theft ring at one time. According to DJ Thompson, Senior Director of Law Enforcement Liaisons for LoJack, former Connecticut State Police Trooper, and past President of the Northeast Chapter of the IAATI, people don’t necessarily look to see what crimes are happening elsewhere and “What MO might come to a neighborhood near you.”

Here are a few examples to illustrate the point.

Arizona: Crimes of Opportunity

In 2016 while national auto theft rates were increasing by 6.6%, Arizona’s auto theft increased by 8.1%. According to the AATA, Arizona currently ranks tenth in the nation for vehicle thefts per capita (theft rate per 100,000 population) and ninth for total stolen vehicles. The FBI’s data for the same year showed that an estimated 18,421 vehicles were stolen in Arizona in 2016.

Auto thieves, often juveniles, look for vehicles in driveways to see if the keys have been left in the vehicle, and will steal whatever they can start. As in other areas, these cars are often used for other crimes. In some cases, cars are stolen and taken to Mexico where they are used in other criminal activity or the vehicle is VIN switched. The car is then brought back to the US for sale or sold in Mexico. Auto theft in Arizona is also often tied to burglaries. Although the car is the main target, a garage door opener in the car can give access to the house. Thieves look for hunting or veteran license plates as clues to which houses might contain firearms they can steal.

According to J.D. Hough, IAATI President, and former supervisor at the Arizona Vehicle Theft Task Force, LoJack not only helps officers find stolen vehicles but improves officer safety by letting law enforcement know ahead of time what they are getting into. In some cases, LoJack has helped recover not only vehicles but additional property from a related burglary as well, and can help investigators see when vehicles are used to commit other crimes.

California: Camaro Parts for Upgrades

Data in the FBI’s “Crime in the United States by State” report shows that in 2016, 176,756 cars were stolen in California, a rate of 450 per 100,000 inhabitants. In the Bay Area, thieves are stealing late-model Chevrolet Camaro cars and selling the parts or using them to upgrade their own cars. Since the VIN does not change, it is hard to trace this crime. The Camaro is a valuable car that is often stolen by swapping in a custom ECU. In some cases, cars stolen from California are sold internationally. Because California has many deep-water ports, it is possible to offshore stolen cars even in places like Stockton which are not often thought of as hotbeds of illegal international commerce.

Colorado: Puffer Thefts

In 2015, auto thefts in Colorado rose to 14,859—a dramatic increase of 29.67% over the previous year. Using the FBI’s average 2013 valuation of a stolen vehicle, this represents $88.7 million in auto theft loss during 2015, more than $20 million over the previous year, according to the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association’s statistics seen in “Colorado Auto Theft”. The FBI’s 2016 data show that thefts rose again to 19,611. According to the 2015 Auto Theft Intelligence Coordination Center’s Annual Public Report, 914 thefts involved vehicles with the keys left inside or nearby; 158 of them were “puffer” thefts.

Illinois: Carjackings

FBI data says that in 2016, 19,910 cars were stolen in Illinois. A majority of car theft in Illinois takes place in Chicago, where one popular target is rental cars. Thieves rent a car online using a fake ID, then “wash” a salvage title from a car of the same make and model and re-tag the car. The vehicle appears legitimate when purchased by an unfortunate mark who only discovers the theft when the VIN reported by the on-board diagnostics (OBD) system does not match during an emissions test. Auto thieves are very aware of which states require titles of salvage vehicles to be branded and which do not, so they know where to get vehicles with titles that are easy to wash.

In their article “Emanuel wants carjacking crackdown bill from Springfield following surge” in the Chicago Tribune, Bill Ruthhart writes that carjackings are a problem in Chicago, growing to nearly 1,000 in 2017. Cars stolen in this way are used for secondary crimes, often dumped after they get too hot and then recovered by law enforcement. In many cases, juveniles are sent to acquire vehicles for other crimes. To charge a suspect with felony motor vehicle theft, there is a burden to prove that the suspect knows that the car is stolen. Much of the time, a juvenile caught in possession of a stolen car will exploit this weakness in the law and be released very quickly.

In the winter, thieves steal “puffers” or “steamers” when people leave their cars running to warm up. Phil Cappitelli, former Supervising Sergeant of the Chicago Police Department Auto Theft Unit, recalls a recent case. “The driver went into a convenience store for water and left two kids in the car. We found the car two blocks away because thieves don’t want to deal with kidnapping. But we’ve also seen cases where the thieves took the kids out and left them on the curb.”

New Jersey: Fraud and Offshoring

The FBI’s data shows that 11,328 cars were stolen in New Jersey in 2016. Gangs in New Jersey use auto theft for financial gain and to finance their other gang activities. Don Cavallo, former Sergeant with the Passaic County Sheriff’s Department, Auto Theft Task Force and National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) Special Agent, notes that a single car theft can be ten times as profitable as a day selling drugs. A car that nets $1500 or $2000 to a juvenile car thief can bring several times that amount to his boss, who sells it for export. Cars that are stolen or carjacked in this way have new VIN numbers issued before export to get them through customs.

Cars can also be acquired for export through fraudulent purchase. International theft rings employ teams of document forgers who create fake IDs, payroll statements, and other documents used to lease or purchase a new vehicle. They may even make a payment or two, so that by the time the fraud is discovered the car is already on another continent.

The New Jersey State Legislature Assembly Task Force on Auto Theft, writes in a February 1993 report, that between 6% and 14% of juvenile offenders are serious repeat offenders who commit the vast majority of the juvenile crime in the state. Like Illinois, New Jersey’s laws make it difficult to hold or prosecute thieves, especially juveniles, if they do not admit to knowledge that the vehicle is stolen.

Texas: Pickup Trucks for Mules

FBI’s data for Texas in 2016 shows that 69,056 cars were stolen, a rate of 247.8 per 100,000 inhabitants. According to Bill Skinner, former Dallas Police Detective and former president of the South Central Chapter of IAATI, car thieves target people who leave smart electronic key fobs in their cars. All the thieves have to do is hit the ignition button to see if the fob is present and the car will start. Heavy duty pickup trucks, especially the Ford F350, are stolen and taken to Mexico, where they can be used to bring people into the country illegally. Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) aircraft frequently see abandoned pickup trucks 15 to 20 miles inside the US border.

MS-13 is also stealing cars in Texas to fund their gang activities. Gang members advertise a car for sale online before they even have it in their possession, then steal it and wash a title once someone is interested in buying it. With this tactic, they keep the vehicle less than a day, lowering their risk.

Washington: Engines for Street Racing

Altogether, 32,286 vehicles were stolen in the state in 2016, a 19.7 percent increase over 2015, when 26,967 vehicles were stolen, according to FBI data.

One auto theft trend in the state of Washington is driven by the popularity of illegal street racing. Honda Vtech and Acura engines are popular because they are easy to modify for more horsepower. These engines are in high demand for building new race cars or replacing blown motors.

Ford and Chevy pickup trucks are popular targets for thieves as well, and to a lesser degree, Dodge RAM trucks. They are useful for transporting goods stolen during burglaries or for rebuilding other trucks that have been damaged. There is a strong market for both trucks and spare parts, especially the four-wheel drive models.

Read on with “Auto Theft Task Forces & Potential Solutions”, part 3 of this Car Theft series.

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