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How to Spot a Stolen Car

Alert patrol officers can help recover stolen vehicles and take dirtbag thieves off the streets.

May 01, 2007  |  by - Also by this author

There are many motivations for stealing cars. Some are taken by kids for so-called "joyrides." Others are shipped to foreign countries and resold or chopped into parts. And more and more often, stolen cars are used to facilitate other crimes, including burglaries, robberies, assaults, and the transportation of narcotics and smuggled immigrants.

Another reason that car theft is such a widespread crime is that, generally, cars are relatively easy to steal. Which isn't to say owners don't work hard to protect their rides. Indeed, the antagonistic goals of car owners and car thieves result in curious technological match ups: slim jims and screwdrivers vs. alarm systems, electronic detectors and overrides vs. onboard tracking systems such as LoJack, GPS, and OnStar.

Car theft hits almost every driver in your jurisdiction right in the wallet. The more vehicles stolen in your city or county, the higher the insurance rates that people have to pay to protect their cars.

This is why many agencies, perhaps even yours, have teams of officers dedicated to finding stolen cars and arresting the thieves. These GTA cops use a variety of techniques and technologies to combat car theft, including tracking tools like LoJack, crime analysis and geoprofiling to identify car theft patterns, and bait cars to catch thieves in the act.

Dedicated GTA teams can be very effective, but their efforts work best when they are backed up by knowledgeable, alert patrol officers who keep their eyes open for stolen vehicles.

How does the patrol cop find the stolen car and its driver?

In the near future, all they may have to do is just drive around and let their cars' mobile computers do much of the work. The Los Angeles Police Department and several other agencies have started using automatic license plate readers capable of scanning hundreds of license plates per hour to detect stolen vehicles.

Still, technology works only so well. And the best tool for spotting stolen vehicles remains the eyes of a veteran cop on patrol.

The Usual Suspects

One of the easiest ways to spot stolen cars is to know who steals them in your area. Car thieves can be notoriously recidivist, so knowing the face of the thief already on parole or probation gives you an early recognition factor when you see him behind the wheel tooling about town.

Being vigilant for the car thief on recon helps, too. There are certain suspicious activities that should scream "car thief" to you. For example, "accidental" bumping of parked cars may camouflage attempts to determine if the impacted vehicle has an alarm system, and people found crouching near vehicles may be searching for hidden keys.

Knowing the tools of the car thief can also be critical in taking him off the street. When detainees are found in possession of shaved keys, master keys, screwdrivers, slimjims, and auto jiggler keys, they may well have earned a ride in your patrol car.

Also, remember that car theft has become a gateway crime, the point where juvenile delinquents graduate from Hot Wheels to hot cars. Juveniles account for some 16 percent of stolen vehicles, so it makes sense to take a second glance at stature and youthful appearances of drivers, especially as some states have raised the minimum age for licensed motorists.

Hunting and Dumping Grounds

It's not enough to know the car thieves in your community. It's also important to know where cars are most likely to be stolen.

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