Etching to steer thieves away

Etching to prevent theft

VIN: Cars can be branded with their unique code for free in Columbia.

April 29, 2005|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN STAFF

Just as ranchers brand their cattle to prevent losses or thefts, the "branding" of cars with an acid-etched, traceable code in as many places as possible will make it less attractive to thieves, police say.

And tomorrow morning, in an event being co-sponsored by the Howard County police, the car-branding known as VIN-etching will be offered for free at a parking lot in Columbia.

"This protects you against a professional thief," said Joe Asplen, vice president of the Maryland/DC Anti-Car Theft Committee, the other co-sponsor of tomorrow's event with Howard County police. "Professionals do not want parts that can be identified as stolen."

Police say etching a car's unique, 17-character vehicle identification number, or VIN, into every piece of glass takes two precious things away from thieves: profit and time.

During traffic stops, police can enter a VIN into a database to learn whether the driver isn't the owner or whether someone has reported the car stolen. To avoid being caught, thieves have to replace the marked pieces of glass before selling the car.

Thieves also don't have the option of selling the windows for money. If the codes on the windows and dashboard of a car don't match, that is a good indication that the car has been stolen.

The only way to remove the etching is to burn or grind it off. Burning it, however, leaves a stain, and grinding it off likely will crack or shatter the window, Asplen said.

The etching takes about 15 minutes. Tomorrow, workers will take a stencil the size of a mailing label and cut the VIN's characters into it. Next, they'll roll a glue-stick-shaped squeeze bottle filled with acid over the stencil.

Dealers often charge several hundred dollars to etch most of a car's parts. People also can buy do-it-yourself VIN-etching kits, but Janet Stabile of the Howard County Police Department doesn't recommend that.

"You're dealing with acid, and it eats right through the glass," she said. "The stencil also is made of very flimsy paper, and it tears very easily. You need to know what you're doing."

Howard County police offer the service several times a year, using a $150,000 grant from the Maryland Vehicle Theft Prevention Council.

Police pursued the grant after the county experienced a surge in auto thefts from 2000 to 2003.

The theft numbers grew steadily during that time, from 477 to 680. Last year, the number fell to 592, and Stabile said it continues to decrease now that prevention efforts are in full swing.

Asplen said individuals can prevent thefts by locking their car doors and not leaving the car running while unattended. Clubs, which lock steering wheels, also help.

More expensive options include new tracking technologies, such as OnStar, and key systems operated by computer chips.

It takes a lot of time to get around computerized key systems, and the only way to take a car with one is to load it on a truck and drive it away.

"More than 25 percent of cars are stolen with the key inside them," said W. Ray Presley, director of the state's vehicle prevention council. "Go to your local convenience store, and it won't take you long to watch someone leave the car running. In the winter, it's to keep the heat on, and in the summer, it's for the air conditioning."

The police and courts also must pursue, and try to catch and prosecute car thieves, Presley said. Howard County's auto theft team includes a supervisor, two detectives and Stabile, who runs prevention programs.

"Departments can't just say, `Oh, they have insurance,' " Presley said. "They have to treat car thefts as grand larceny, not economic or insurance crimes, or your county will become an open field for thieves to play in."

VIN etching

What: Free Vehicle Identification Number etching on car windows

When: 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. tomorrow

Where: Kings Contrivance village, 7251 Eden Brook Drive, Columbia (weather permitting)

Why: VIN etching has been proven to deter car thefts and assist recovery efforts.

Inclement-weather plan: If it rains, Howard County will hold another event in June. The Maryland/DC Anti-Car Theft Committee also will offer free etching June 4 at 1750 Forest Drive, Annapolis.

Information: Janet Stabile of the Howard County Police Department, 410-313-3337.

Thieves' favorites

Top 10 stolen vehicles in Howard by make and model:

1. Honda Civic

2. Honda Accord

3. Acura Integra

4. Dodge Caravan

5. Toyota Camry

6. Jeep Cherokee

7. Suzuki GSR (motorcycle)

8. Plymouth Voyager

9. Dodge Intrepid

10. Chevrolet Cavalier

Source: Howard County Police Department

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