Car thefts on rise locally despite drop statewide
America’s love affair with the automobile is rivaled only by a car thief’s desire.
Nationally and regionally, vehicle thefts are on the increase, and consequently, local car security stores report that they are doing steady business.
In Allegheny County, vehicle thefts increased by 6 percent from 1997 to 1999, according to the most recent Pennsylvania State Police Uniform Crime Report.
Also, the city of Butler has seen vehicle thefts almost quadruple between 1998 and 2000. There were 21 vehicle thefts reported in 1998, 34 in 1999 and 82 in 2000.
Nationally, one vehicle is stolen every 20 seconds, and thefts increased by 2.7 percent from 1998 to 1999, as reported by the FBI.
But in the state, vehicle thefts decreased by 9.7 percent from 1998 to 1999, according to the state crime report.
While Allegheny County and Butler city are reporting more car thefts, some North Hills communities report they are bucking the local trend and that vehicle thefts actually have decreased in recent years.
Detective Bill Barrett of the Ross Township Police Department said his department saw car thefts peak in 1990 with 349.
But car thefts decreased through the 1990s, and during the past three years, there were only 77 reported thefts in 1998, 62 in 1999 and 61 in 2000, Barrett said.
Barrett said that in the past, many would-be vehicle thieves have been attracted to the Ross Park Mall parking lot.
‘We’ve really increased patrol of the parking lots and started working with the mall security,’ Barrett said about why thefts have dropped.
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Sgt. David Lewis of the Cranberry Township Police Department said that even though Cranberry – with several shopping centers and easy highway access – seems like an ideal spot for vehicle theft, the police department has been able to keep vehicle thefts down.
‘Cranberry has the reputation that the people who live here drive nicer cars,’ Lewis said. ‘We also have hotels and shopping centers that are attractive for car thieves. But we haven’t seen one set pattern.’
In 1999, there were 23 reports of car thefts, in 2000 there were 21; so far this year, the Cranberry police have handled 16 cases.
‘You can never really know the trend for vehicle thefts, but we do have a lot of cars stolen that are later abandoned in (Pittsburgh),’ Lewis said. ‘But we have more cars in residential neighborhoods being broken into.’
Lewis said drivers are leaving expensive items such as cellular phones, brief cases and portable computers in their cars.
‘If you’re leaving items in your car, you might as well put a sign on your car that says ‘rob me,” Lewis said.
The Shaler Township Police Department is seeing a level number of car thefts, Lt. Tom Haser said.
‘We mainly get youths who want to steal a car for joy riding,’ Haser said.
Roy Miller, executive director of the Pennsylvania Auto Theft Task Force, said that car thefts are a cyclical problem, and while the state has seen a decrease, it seems that car thieves have started targeting the county.
‘We will still see pockets of crime where car thieves have moved to other areas. In the case of Philadelphia, the auto theft task force has reduced car thefts in the city, but commercial thieves have moved to other areas.’
But in the face of increasing vehicle thefts nationally and countywide, consumers also are looking to beef up their cars with security equipment.
Stephen Winicoff, an architect working at Burt Hill Kosar in the city of Butler, said that he uses the Club anti-theft device on his 1998 Neon.
‘While I know it can’t prevent the theft of my car, it does set it up as a deterrent. If a thief is looking at my car or someone else’s to steal, and mine has the Club, the Club will cost the thief another 30 seconds to break into my car. I think the thief will take the other guy’s car,’ Winicoff said.
A vehicle security dealership reports that it is doing steady business.
‘Yes, we have a regular stream of people into the store,’ Christopher Lydon, a salesman at Speed of Sound said. ‘People will buy the basic $199 security system, where others are willing to invest thousands into their car.’
One of the highest levels of protection – beyond using the Club anti-theft device, car alarms or an electronic key – is a tracking device, called a Global Positioning System or GPS, which emits a signal to a police or monitoring station to help recover a stolen vehicle.
Other security measures include an engine shutoff function with some car security systems. While a thief might drive off in a vehicle, the car’s owner can shut off the engine or the distributor via a wireless remote.
Lydon said that many of the people who buy car security features own more expensive cars and want to protect their vehicles, but car thieves are not just looking for expensive automobiles.
According to the nonprofit National Crime Prevention Council, used cars are stolen more often than new cars. Parts for older vehicles are in high demand, and auto thieves can strip a vehicle and sell the parts for two or four times the vehicle’s actual worth, according to the council.
The top five stolen cars in Pennsylvania are the Honda Accord, Nissan Maxima, Jeep Cherokee, Toyota Camry and Oldsmobile Cutlass.
‘No car is safe from being stolen or broken into,’ Lewis said. ‘If someone can’t drive away in your car, members of a car theft ring can just bring in a flatbed truck and haul it away on that.’
And even Lydon admits that there is no perfect security device for a car.
‘Just think of it like your home. People can equip their homes with every sort of alarm and security measure, but thieves will find a way in,’ Lydon said. ‘They always do.’
Ellen James can be reached at email@example.com or (724) 779-7123. Staff writer Rose Domenick contributed to this report.