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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

Popular hunting grounds for car thieves include shopping malls, streets, driveways, parking lots, garages, and car dealerships. Any location where cars are grouped together for extended periods such as airports, shopping centers, colleges, sporting events, fairgrounds, movie theaters, and large apartment complexes are also particularly vulnerable. Interestingly, high-rise and subterranean parking structures are generally less attractive for car thieves, thanks to reduced numbers of escape routes and the possibility of getting boxed in from above and below.

Since many cars are stolen for joyrides and for use in other crimes, they are often dumped when the thieves no longer have use for them. Airport parking lots, hotels, and cul de sacs are all popular dumping grounds. Transient friendly and often witness-free, these locations find stolen cars going unnoticed for long stretches of time.

Not that all abandonment sites are true abandonment sites. Some are mere layovers on the way to chop shops or other sordid destinations. For thieves not only use "cold plating" (placing unreported license plates on stolen rides) to camouflage their stolen vehicles, but "dump and watch" tactics, as well, leaving the stolen auto for 24 hours to see if cops recover the vehicle in response to a hidden recovery system hit.

Moving Targets

To hedge your bets, look for telltale signs of a GTA while the ride is mobile. These include new cars with body damage, such as broken windows (telltale sign of a break in), newer model cars with extensive body damage (evidence of cavalier driving), age of occupants, and visible lack of familiarity with the vehicle.

Det. Ed McDonald, an auto theft investigator for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, notes that the transitory lives of suspects finds them frequenting hospitable places such as motels.

"I always check for cars that are backed into parking spaces," McDonald says. "Cars that are missing front plates (in states that require them) or that have temporary paper plates also raise red flags. Compromised door or trunk locks are dead giveaways. Cars that are unsecured because of rolled down or smashed out windows are usually pretty fair indicators, too."

McDonald also recommends checking out local dope pads, as stolen cars and their contents can be bartered for drugs. Another likely car theft indicator is the guy who has more cars than he seems to know what to do with.

"He's the guy with the yard cars. He usually has several vehicles sitting on the lawn or in the backyard, and he goes above and beyond in putting tarps over the cars or fencing them in so as to keep them hidden from street view. He's apt to be running a chop shop operation," McDonald explains.

What Gets Stolen

Nationally, there were 1.2 million car thefts in 2004, with the Honda Civic topping the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) list of stolen vehicles.

But there were some notable regional preferences among thieves, with Ford pickup trucks catching the dubious distinction of being the most stolen vehicle in Texas in 2006. In Florida, it was the 1991 Toyota Camry that caught suspects' eyes, while North Dakotan dirtbags were partial to the 1992 Chevrolet Full Size C/K 1500 Pickup. Bicoastal representation found California car thieves favoring the 1991 Honda Accord, while New Yorkers went with the 1990 Toyota Camry.

But the numbers don't tell the whole story, especially when one is looking at hundreds of thousands of car thefts a year. The older car owner who parks between the Escalade and the Mercedes in the hopes that any discriminating car thief will take one of the other two before touching his might be fooling himself.

Indeed, some car thieves will specifically gravitate to older models, especially for short term usage: They recognize that recovery tracking tools are cost-preemptive relative to the cars' value and they're less apt to stand out on the road. 

When Cars are Stolen

No cop likes working weekends. But if you're inclined to make the best of a bad situation, it might be of interest to note that Fridays and Saturdays are hands down the busiest car theft days, giving "weekend getaway" a whole new meaning. With recovery rates showing that more than half of stolen motor vehicles are recovered in the first day, this is a window of opportunity for the aggressive street cop.

But let's be realistic. There are limits to what you can do to recover stolen cars and arrest car thieves.

While some agencies give you considerable latitude and will let you chase dirtbags to the ends of the earth, others have highly restrictive pursuit policies, which means if the suspect fails to yield once you light him up, you'd better have your ducks in a row. Having your assisting units and eye-in-the-sky in place ahead of time can help mitigate the chances of a long or canceled pursuit. And remember, your best move is to get the bad guy into custody away from the car after you've already established a strong connection between him and the stolen vehicle. That makes it a lot harder for him to run.

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Tags: Investigations, How-To Guides, Auto Theft


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