The stolen cars reappeared on the streets of Hartford, Connecticut, so often over the past year that police would sometimes find five in a day. But unlike the hot-wiring heydays of the ’80s and ’90s, when chop shops thrived, most of the recovered cars were unharmed.
After years of declines, car thefts appear to be surging in cities and suburbs all over the country. The spree, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic, does not appear to be the work of sophisticated crime rings, police say. Instead, this new wave of car thefts seems to stem from a combination of simple carelessness and the same technological advancement that once made stealing cars nearly impossible: the key fob.
The broad adoption of keyless ignitions that began in the late 1990s ushered in a dark era for car thieves. New cars had engine immobilizers that only a microchip in the key fob could unlock, and vehicle thefts quickly plummeted. From a high of 1.7 million a year in 1991, thefts had dropped more than 50% in recent years, according to data compiled by the FBI. Technology, it seemed, had largely solved the problem of stolen vehicles.
Until people started leaving their fobs sitting in their cup holders.
Now, police say forgotten fobs and keyless technology have contributed to soaring stolen car cases that do not look much like the crimes that plagued cities three decades ago.
In Hartford, police have traced the surge to teens joyriding in from the suburbs. In Los Angeles, stolen cars reappear so frequently that police believe thieves are using them like Ubers.
And in New York City, a related but different problem has emerged as more drivers leave their cars running to make pit stops and deliveries during the pandemic, making their cars easy targets for thieves who can simply drive away, even without a fob.
The issue so concerned the New York City Police Department that it recently made a video featuring a man whose car was stolen — with his French bulldog inside — to warn New Yorkers of the risk.
“This is a very stupid problem to have,” a Hartford Police Department official said to reporters last month, on a day when five stolen cars were recovered in the city, and 12 people — about half of them teenagers — were arrested. “The technology that was created specifically to eliminate car thefts, such as key fob technology, is now being used against us.”
The situation has left law enforcement struggling to keep up with a deluge of car thefts; in some places, the endless caseload has threatened to overburden smaller police departments. But unlike the crimes of yesteryear, when stolen cars would eventually turn up stripped for parts, police say most today are abandoned undamaged. And with laborious tracing work, police say they are able to return many stolen cars to their owners.
The pandemic has made the problem worse, said Deputy Inspector Jessica E. Corey of the New York City Police Department’s Crime Prevention Division. With the increase in deliveries as people try to stay home, many victims are delivery drivers making drop-offs, Corey said. She stressed that in many of the city’s cases, people have also left cars running with traditional keys.
In New York City, 6,858 vehicles were stolen in 2020, up from 3,988 the year before. Of those taken in 2020, more than 3,450 were stolen while they were running. The year before, 1,634 were stolen while running. (The department does not specify whether electronic or traditional keys are used.)
A snapshot of a single New York City day is revealing: On Dec. 5 alone, 11 vehicles were stolen while left running, and another six were stolen with keys or fobs inside, according to the Police Department.
There are many ways to leave a car vulnerable: Some drivers forget a key fob inside. Others take it, but leave the car on, allowing the vehicle to be driven away — though not restarted later. Some cars can be started if the key is just nearby. And in a smaller number of cases, criminals have used technology to reprogram keyless cars.
This summer, a thief who took an Audi left running outside a Brooklyn pet store also made off with the owner’s French bulldog, Calvin. Police recovered both the car and dog about four hours later in Manhattan.
“What still haunts me to this day is I can’t imagine what it was like for him and how scared he must have been,” said Calvin’s owner, Zach Sobel, 27. On July 11, Sobel said he left his car running in Sunset Park with the air-conditioner on to keep Calvin cool, pocketed his key fob, and went into the shop.
But a second fob was still inside the glove compartment.
Sobel, who works at an automotive paint supply company, has since recorded a video for the New York Police Department to educate people on the risk. “It was the scariest feeling in the world and it could happen to anybody,” he said.
Since the peak of the ’90s, vehicle thefts have trended roughly downward, to about 723,000 stolen in 2019, the last year for which FBI data is available. But from June through December 2020, monthly thefts increased on average 13% over the same period in 2019, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, a nonprofit organization that tracks car thefts and related crimes. Preliminary data suggests thefts will be about 9% higher in 2020 overall.
“The numbers are quite staggering,” said David J. Glawe, the president and chief executive of the organization.
“Key fobs were initially thought to be a proactive security measure,” Glawe added. “People have let their guards down with their vehicles.”
In some cities with stringent lockdowns in place to combat the virus, like Los Angeles and New York City, auto theft has significantly spiked.
In Los Angeles, car theft reached record levels during the spring lockdown: 5,744 vehicles were stolen from April to June, an increase of nearly 60% over the year before, according to an analysis of crime data by Crosstown, a nonprofit news organization based out of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
Many turned up just a few blocks away; police there believe vehicles have become so simple to steal that some people take them just to get from place to place.
“People do not want to ride on mass transit because of the pandemic,” said Siage Hosea, an Los Angeles Police Department lieutenant who works on the Taskforce for Regional Autotheft Protection. “Or it could be that people can’t afford to get a taxi or an Uber because of economics of the times.”
In Hartford, police were able to recover 1,449 stolen cars in 2020 — 1,166 brought to the city from out of town. Officials said much of the stealing is by juveniles driving stolen cars in from the suburbs.
“They are checking handles,” said Lt. Aaron Boisvert, a spokesman for the Hartford police. “And when they find something that is unsecured or within reach of the remote starter, then off they go.”
Key fob negligence is so ubiquitous that police say the problem can feel intractable: On Nov. 18, Hartford police pulled over a Volvo S80, zipping erratically through the city’s North End. Behind the wheel was a 17-year-old — driving a car that had been reported stolen earlier that day. The teenager was issued a summons and released into the custody of a guardian.
Hours later, Hartford officers pulled over a Ford Explorer. Behind the wheel was a familiar face: the same 17-year-old in yet another stolen car.
Car manufacturers are planning to fight back, experimenting with biometric readers, devices that scan an individual’s fingerprints or irises, that might be used to start cars in the future so vehicles can only be operated by a specific person.
But even that technology might one day be outsmarted: “I cringe to hear that things are ‘impenetrable’ or ‘can’t be beaten’,” said Glawe of the insurance crime bureau. “What I have seen over and over again is sophisticated or even unsophisticated criminals who will learn to crack that code.”
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