When car thieves decided to pick Dodge Neons as their target of choice in central and northern Baltimore County, the police response was unusual but quite specific.
They sent letters to Neon owners in Towson, Carney and Cockeysville cautioning them: You could be next.
More than 300 people who own or lease Neons were sent letters this month -- in the latest escalation in Baltimore County's crime-prevention efforts.
Police use an automated telephone system that calls residents with a recorded message about a particular crime problem in their neighborhood. Police also have a weekly crime-trend hot line. But the letters are more direct, police said.
Rather than blanket the area with a general warning about car thefts, police went as far as combing through Motor Vehicle Administration records for the entire state to find the county's Neon owners living in the neighborhoods where police statistics show that the compact cars are more likely to be stolen.
"It's a wake-up call," said Detective Sgt. Bob Jagoe, a commander in the Baltimore Regional Auto Theft Team. "It says this is happening in your neighborhood, not halfway around the world. This is the type of car you have. You need to secure it."
The Neon, made by Dodge and Plymouth, is among the most often stolen in Maryland, said Jagoe. "They're easy to steal," he said. "The kids love them."
This week, several young men stole a Neon from a rental car company in the 2000 block of E. Joppa Road in Carney, police said. An officer happened to be nearby Wednesday night when he saw the car passing about 70 mph before it crashed into a parked car. Three young men jumped out and started to run. But one, an 18-year-old Baltimore man, was caught, arrested and charged with the theft, according to police reports.
Incidents like that show why police are sending the letters, which include a pamphlet that recommends Neon owners use a steering wheel lock, Jagoe said.
Neon owner Doris Hoxter, a retired county health department secretary who lives in the Loch Raven Heights area, was impressed by the letter. "I was glad to see it," she said, noting that although her Neon has never been broken into, it has been vandalized several times in the past few years.
"Ever since then, we keep a pretty close eye on it," said Hoxter. "We always keep the Club on it and try to be a little more careful about where we park it and that kind of thing."
In a recent rash of thefts, Neons were taken from three communities in particular: an apartment complex in Cockeysville, a portion of Loch Raven Village and Hillendale and several neighborhoods in Carney.
In each area, about a half-dozen Neons were stolen over a two- to three-day period late last month, said Terry Tanguilig, a statistical analyst for the Police Department.
The cars turned up a few days later in the same neighborhoods, usually after the stereo equipment had been stripped from them.
Using the MVA database, Tanguilig came up with hundreds of county residents who own or lease a Neon. From that, he narrowed the list to those living in the communities where the Neons were being stolen.
Though the thefts occurred last month, Jagoe said that it is likely those same neighborhoods will be hit again.
Along with the letter from Capt. Richard D. Weih, head of the criminal intelligence and analysis section, police enclosed a brochure from the Maryland Vehicle Theft Prevention Council that lists ways to deter car thieves, such as parking in lighted or locked areas and avoiding leaving the keys inside.
Cindy McCallum, a librarian who lives in Hillendale, received a personal warning from police about securing her Neon before she received their letter.
An officer had spotted her car in the library parking lot with the windows down, which McCallum has been doing since the heat shattered her back windshield. She said he told her about the recent Neon thefts and ever since she has been using her Club.
Had she not already talked with an officer, McCallum said she would've been especially thankful to receive a letter.
"It keeps us up to date and reminds you to keep an eye out," she said.
A spokeswoman for DaimlerChrysler said the 2002 Neon features several security options, including automatic door locks, an engine immobilizer and a security alarm.
She said the company doesn't keep records on the theft rate of the model.
Police have experimented with sending letters before. In 1999, they sent a round of warnings about Neon thefts and have also notified owners of Ford Mustangs by mail about thefts.
It is possible that the letters will reach an unintended audience, said Philip R. Canter, chief statistician for the county police.
Some drivers who have been the victim of car theft may receive a warning letter.
"We've only had positive feedback," Canter said. "We've never heard from someone who calls up and says, `Hey, I'm the victim. Why are you writing to me -- to rub it in?' All of the calls we get are from people who thank us for the warnings. People want to know about crime problems and what they can do to help."