Popular, affordable vehicle has become an easy-to-steal favorite for car thieves

June 05, 2000|By Nancy A. Youssef | Nancy A. Youssef,SUN STAFF

Kimberly Doby walked out the front door of her Dundalk apartment one recent morning and was horrified: Her 1998 Plymouth Neon was gone, stolen during the night from her complex in the 1900 block of Marsdale Road.

She wasn't the only one. Five Neons had been stolen from the complex that night, illustrating what police say is a surge in the small car's popularity among young auto thieves. Doby's sister, who also owns a Neon, was spared only because she and her car were elsewhere.

"We didn't realize they were as easy to steal," said Doby, 29, who has bought another Neon. "They popped the ignition with a screwdriver."

Although statistics show Honda Accords, Jeep Cherokees and Dodge Caravans at the top of the list of most-stolen cars nationally, Baltimore County officials say the Plymouth and Dodge Neon models top the list of less-expensive models.

The reason is that they're easy to steal, making them especially attractive to young thieves looking to joy ride or those in search of a getaway vehicle.

"You can steal one with a butter knife, literally," said Tfc. Sean Gray of the state police auto theft unit.

County police Sgt. Robert Jagoe, a member of the regional auto theft task force, said, "My sense is that a fair number are used to commit other crimes. From time to time, they are used in robberies."

Nationally, the Neon is ranked seventh among the most commonly stolen cars. In Baltimore County, the Neon accounted for 74 of about 3,000 cars stolen last year. Although the state does not keep regional statistics, officials say they believe the number of stolen Neons is growing.

The Neon is vulnerable because it lacks security features, said Kim Hazelbaker, senior vice president of the Highway Loss Data Institute, based in Arlington, Va.

Many cars have a "kill switch," which cuts off the fuel line or electrical features once the car is turned off. The vehicle can be started only with a key.

Until the 2000 model year, Neons did not offer that feature, so criminals could break into a Neon with a knife or screwdriver, then use the tool to pop out the ignition and start the car, Hazelbaker said.

DaimlerChrysler officials said they are not aware of any unusual theft problem with the Neon. Their newest model has optional security features, they said, including a kill switch and alarm system.

"It certainly has been addressed in the 2000 model," said Sam Locricchio, spokesman for DaimlerChrysler.

Some law enforcement officials believe that as auto theft changes -- and as DaimlerChrysler increases security measures -- the car will become less appealing to thieves. Auto theft is becoming a business of export, not joy riding, Hazelbaker said.

Among die-hard Neon fans, the vehicle's theft rating seems not to have tarnished its popularity.

When Baltimore County officials recovered Doby's car, it had been rammed into a barrier and had suffered extensive body damage. When Doby chose her next car, she bought another Neon, saying she liked the look and the price. (Model year 2000 Neons start at $13,175.)

"I thought, `I can't believe I am looking at this car,' " said Doby. "The dealer said they are not as easy to steal anymore. This one also had an alarm on it."

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