In metro area, owners losing the arms race to car thieves Alarming developments

July 08, 1994|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Sun Staff Writer

Scenes from the front on a July morning in Baltimore:

Dr. Barbara Bell walks out of her Roland Park home at 7 a.m. and faces an empty curb, where her black '88 Acura was parked less than an hour ago. She isn't surprised it's been stolen -- thieves have tried to get the car twice before.

Steven Zucker wanders through the parking lot in his townhouse community, suitcases in hand, sure his silver '93 Honda must be somewhere nearby.

Margery Dellon looks out the window and sees her son's green 1990 Acura is gone. For a brief moment, she wonders if her husband could have taken it, but it's a faint hope. It's her second car theft in six weeks.

Jane Schultz is sitting down to breakfast in North Baltimore, unaware her '92 Dodge is in West Baltimore -- until a police officer comes to her door to inform her it has been in a hit-and-run.

It's the car owners against the car thieves, and guess who's winning? In the 1990s, in large metropolitan areas such as Baltimore, joy-riding juveniles may be the latest common enemy, now that Communism is dead.

For those who have confronted an empty driveway, then the city's impound lot on Pulaski Highway, the anti-theft arms race is escalating. It starts with a naive owner, who may not even lock his car until after the first theft. Then come the gadgets -- locking mechanisms or shrieking alarms first, then more sophisticated "ignition-kills." There are even "talking" car alarms, for those who don't hear enough plaintive voices in their daily lives.

Whether one spends a little or a lot, it all adds up. The National Insurance Crime Bureau estimates $800 million will be spent on anti-theft devices this year. That's an increase of $450 million since 1989.

In the city, car thefts are up almost 50 percent for the first three months of this year -- and 1993 was the winter without five ice storms. Statewide, theft is up 19 percent over last year, but almost 1 out of every 3 cars stolen is stolen in Baltimore.

It could drive a person crazy. It definitely drives a person to consider solutions beyond car alarms.

The moving solution

Dr. Bell, for example, has considered selling her house. That solution also has occurred to Margery Dellon, who instead will try what she calls the "armed camp" approach -- an alarm for the garage, motion-sensitive lights and ignition-kills for the cars. She has even considered a security gate at the foot of her driveway, which would cost $3,000 for the metal alone.

"It's totally absurd," admits Mrs. Dellon, who surveys her wide lawn and wonders whether a security gate would simply encourage thieves to drive across her patio. "It's not only the money, it's the energy."

Steven Zucker, a Johns Hopkins University mathematics professor, has thought about driving a car no one wants. But what kind of car would that be? While some cars are undeniably more desirable to thieves than others, no car owner can assume any vehicle is immune.

Besides, people who are drawn to nice cars hate to give them up. Deborah Kurlis of Perry Hall had a burgundy 1986 Camaro Z-28. It was stolen twice, and recovered twice. (Most cars are recovered.) This winter, she traded it in -- for a burgundy 1994 Camaro Z-28, fully loaded. Why not buy a less appealing car?

"That's giving into the thieves," she protested. She is, however, a convert to the "Club," the best-known brand name among bar locks for steering wheels.

Bus with no tires

George Harris, a locksmith at Access Control, sees them coming and going. They come in with their busted car locks. They often leave with a new security system. He is, not surprisingly, an avid fan of anti-theft systems.

"Someone stole a 1956 school bus with no tires," he says, his voice filled with wonder. "I tell people, if someone's going to steal a school bus with no tires, your car could be stolen, too."

He talks the talk and he walks the walk. Mr. Harris, who drives a 1975 Dodge Dart, has a state-of-the-art security system in it -- the Harrison Hellfire 401. This unit includes an ignition-kill switch and a transmitter, which allows Mr. Harris to check from a distance if his car alarm has been tampered with.

The basic system starts at $195 and the price can rise quickly, Mr. Harris says, up to $800. But he figures most people can get what they need for less than $300 -- still a lot of money, he concedes. He remembers one customer whose car had been stolen five times, yet who was reluctant to invest heavily in an anti-theft device.

Mr. Harris, while not a fan of "club"-like bars for steering wheels, says one manufactured by Kmart is tough even for a locksmith to disable. Unfortunately, the thieves don't worry about the locks. They saw off the steering wheels or -- the newest trick, just beginning to reach Baltimore -- spray the devices with Freon, which makes them easier to break.

Preventive measures

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