• Look for vehicles with windows rolled down or missing. Most people don’t leave their windows rolled down when they park their car, especially at night. If you see a vehicle parked with its windows down, especially if it is parked out of place, take a closer look.
• Check with surrounding cities. Just because your city doesn’t have a lot of Hondas stolen doesn’t mean a nearby city hasn’t experienced a rash of “missing” Civics. Most car thieves know if they drive the car to a different city they have a better chance of not getting caught.
• Check the VIN. The Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) is the quickest and easiest way to identify a stolen car. If your instincts tell you a car is stolen, check it out. When you are on a vehicle stop of a suspicious vehicle, confirm the last four or six numbers of the VIN. These numbers are specific to only that vehicle; the other ones are specific to that vehicle model. If the VIN doesn’t match the license plate, you may have a “cold-plated” stolen vehicle. A thief will attach a different license plate, usually from the same type and similar year of vehicle. This is called “cold plating.” Run the entire VIN when this happens.
• Know the “hot” vehicles in your area and keep an eye out for them. What kind of car gets stolen the most in your city? Toyota Camry? Saturn? Know your area and notice the makes and years of vehicles that are getting stolen the most. This will help you see them better as they drive down the road in front of you or when you see them “dumped” somewhere.
• Most important of all, follow your instincts. If you think a vehicle is stolen, dig into it until you are satisfied it’s not. Remember, it may be an unreported stolen car. In that case, when you have exhausted all other techniques, document who was driving the car. If it is reported stolen later, you can always track down the driver. Time is on your side in law enforcement.
Using these techniques can greatly increase the vehicle recoveries in your agency. Patrol officers are the eyes and ears of the police department, and they are in the best position to locate these stolen vehicles every day. Good luck, and happy hunting.
For additional reading and lists of the Top Ten Most Stolen Cars and U.S. Car Theft Capitals, go to "Grand Theft Arizona", (POLICE, October, 2004).
Dan Pasquale is an auto-theft detective for the City of Tracy Police Department in northern California. This is his second contribution to POLICE magazine.