Car thefts decelerate, but not enough to keep county out of top spot

Auto theft crimes are down in Stanislaus County, but not enough from avoiding the No. 1 per capita ranking countrywide.
Auto theft crimes are down in Stanislaus County, but not enough from avoiding the No. 1 per capita ranking countrywide. Modesto Bee

Stanislaus County can't shake the title of car theft capital of America, but law enforcement is putting the brakes on more and more auto thieves.

For the second year in a row, and for the fifth time in six years, Stanislaus County topped the list of areas with the highest car theft rates in the country. The area recorded 829 cars stolen per 100,000 people in 2008, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

But in this car chase, the cops are catching up. The county's car theft rate dropped about 20 percent last year and has declined by about 41 percent since 2005, said California Highway Patrol Lt. Jeff Morris, commander of the Stanislaus County Auto Theft Task Force.

The local downward trend mirrors nationwide figures. Preliminary data released by the FBI suggest that the country saw a 12.6 percent drop in car thefts during 2008, the largest single-year decline since 1999, according to the insurance crime bureau.

How is local law enforcement letting the air out of car thieves' tires?

Morris said much of the improvement can be pegged to new strategies, including bait cars. Those are vehicles rigged with cameras and audio recording equipment.

Law enforcement will leave the bait car, sometimes with the keys in the ignition, in areas with a high number of reported car thefts. When a thief opens the car's door, the recording equipment starts, catching the theft on tape. Police can follow the suspect with a global positioning system device, then use remote controls to stop the car.

Fine-tuning improves results

Law enforcement has stepped up partnerships with prosecutors and probation and parole departments, Morris said. For example, the county doubled bail amounts for suspected car thefts from $20,000 to $40,000, one of the highest in the state, he said.

"When you tweak all the parts, when you've got enforcement, legislation and prosecution all working in sync, you get a good result, and that's what's happening in Stanislaus County," insurance crime bureau spokesman Frank Scafidi said.

The other bright spot in the gloomy car theft picture is Stanislaus County's exceptionally high recovery rate. It's 92 percent, Morris said. The nationwide recovery rate in 2007 was 57.9 percent.

Although movies such as "Gone in 60 Seconds" show car thieves shipping their booty overseas to criminal kingpins, Morris said that's not how Stanislaus County thieves do business.

Most stolen vehicles are recovered in the same town where they were taken, Morris said. In many cases, the cars are found with just a few easy-to-remove items missing, such as tires or stereo systems, he said.

That's because the motive behind many car thefts is to get quick cash for a drug fix, he said. Data show that about 60 percent of suspects arrested on suspicion of car theft have drug arrests on their record, Morris said.

Law enforcement has learned that thieves are sometimes after more than four wheels when they steal your car. Often thieves are hoping to steal an identity along with a ride, Morris said. They know drivers sometimes keep paperwork with personal information in glove compartments.

How can you avoid adding to the county's car theft rate? Common sense is the No. 1 theft deterrent, Morris said.

"They're not looking for your car in most cases, they're just looking for a car," Morris said.

"If yours is the one that has the keys in it, or the one with the computer sitting in the back, it's going to get taken."

Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at or 578-2378.

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