Fewer cars stolen more gone for good

'Professionals' make it less likely autos taken are returned, police say

'Backyard chop shops'

Anti-theft devices, community awareness driving down local rate

April 07, 1997|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

Your car is less likely to be stolen these days. But if it is stolen, there's a greater chance you will never see it again, according to Maryland State Police statistics.

Although Baltimore-area auto theft rates have edged down in recent years, the percentage of stolen cars recovered also has declined -- a fact that law enforcement officials attribute to a increase in professional car thieves.

"We're seeing more professionals coming into Baltimore from other areas such as New York to do auto theft operations," said Sgt. Bob Jagoe, supervisor of the Baltimore City and County Regional Auto-Theft Team. These professionals have been setting up "backyard-type chop shops" or changing the vehicle identification tags on stolen cars and selling them, Jagoe said.

Local law enforcement officials say increasing community awareness and use of anti-theft devices such as The Club have helped drive down auto theft in the Baltimore area.

In Baltimore County, auto-theft rates decreased 24 percent from 1994 to 1996; in Baltimore City, the decrease was 17 percent in the same period.

But both areas have seen a decrease in recovery rates as well. Sgt. Charles Dixon, supervisor of the Baltimore City auto-theft unit, said the recovery rate in his district has decreased from 91 percent in 1990 to 76.9 percent in 1996.

"There's a lot more crime," Dixon said. "Officers have less time to hunt down cars because of the heavier workload."

The trend has been similar statewide, where car thefts have fallen 5.6 percent in the past two years, but recovery rates of stolen cars have gone from 77 percent to 68 percent since 1991, according to state police.

Kim Hazelbaker, senior vice president for the Arlington, Va.-based Highway Loss Data Institute, said everyone is affected by these statistics, even those who haven't had their cars stolen.

"It's more expensive for the auto insurer when a car is stolen and not recovered," Hazelbaker said. "We all get to pay for that in some part of our auto insurance premium even if it wasn't your car. It affects everyone who insures a car."

Signs indicate that Maryland's recovery rate could change soon.

Nationally, the stolen car recovery rate has gone from 84 percent in 1970 to 62 percent in 1994, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, a nonprofit organization that tracks auto-theft trends. But since 1994, a "slight increase" in vehicle recoveries has been recorded, said Jim Spiller, the bureau's director of operations.

Export of stolen cars to such countries as Canada, Mexico and even China, which has been a big problem since 1989, has been targeted by law enforcement agencies, Spiller said.

Recent bilateral treaties with Mexico and Guatemala also brought about the return of stolen U.S. vehicles found in those countries, he said.

"But we should not rest on our laurels," he said. "I think the better approach is to keep [the cars] from leaving the country in the first place."

This is in the works among local law enforcement officials. In Baltimore, 1,600 professional car thieves have been arrested since 1995, thanks in part to funds from the Maryland Vehicle Theft Prevention Council, Jagoe said. With the funds, his group was able to pay informants for information that led to arrests.

Lt. Jay Fisher, head of a state-funded Baltimore City anti-theft program, said his team has been giving away Clubs in neighborhoods hardest hit by car thefts. He hopes that will urge residents to protect their vehicles.

"We're sending out the word that we're supporting them 100 percent and we're doing as much as we can through education and enforcement to eradicate the stolen car problem," he said.

Pub Date: 4/07/97

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