Detectives call it a crime of opportunity, but in Scottsdale automobile stealing is down for the third year in a row because police say residents are taking the easy chances away from thieves.
Whether it’s using a steering wheel club or pedal jack, a tracking device or simply posting a sign at an apartment complex warning thieves that a police bait car may be in the parking lot, a more vigilant public is helping to deter vehicle thefts, said Scottsdale police Sgt. Tom Macari of the auto crimes unit.
“There’s more people becoming actively involved in protecting their property,” he said. “It’s up to people to protect their property, and the more layers of protection you have on you car, there’s more of a chance that an auto thief is going to look elsewhere for another car to steal.”
In 2006, there were 1,118 auto thefts reported in Scottsdale, 43 less than in 2005 and 383 less than in 2003, when the number peaked at 1,501. Between 2002 and 2006, the number of auto thefts fell 26 percent.
The San Tropez Apartments, 2700 N. Hayden Road, experienced the most reported auto thefts in the city last year with 20, according to police statistics. The number came as a surprise to Krista Bruckman, community manager at the south Scottsdale complex.
“Honestly, I wouldn’t have thought we were No. 1,” Bruckman said. “There was a rash of auto thefts last year during March and April, but we really haven’t seen a lot of it lately.”
Scottsdale Fashion Square, which led the city in 2005 with the most auto thefts, dropped to No. 3 in 2006 behind General Dynamics, a defense contractor and the city’s second-largest employer, which saw 19 cars stolen from its parking lots.
Although the number of arrests netted from auto thefts is mostly unchanged — 75 arrests in 2006 compared with 70 arrests the year before — people in problem areas are getting more aggressive in deterring thieves, said Macari, a member of the auto crimes unit since 2001.
Through a recent grant from the Arizona Auto Theft Authority, Scottsdale was able to purchase 125 signs this year that are being posted in apartment complexes, along neighborhood streets and in parking lots of businesses showing an upward trend in stolen car reports.
Also positioned at auto theft hot spots around the city are bait cars the police department leases through a partnership with the Arizona chapter of the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
The cars are equipped with a video camera, an alarm that immediately pages Macari, a tracking device and a mechanism that automatically turns the car off.
“If someone who is thinking about stealing a car sees one of those signs (warning of bait cars in parking lots), they might think twice before trying it there, knowing if they get caught, they’re going to jail.”
Auto theft is a felony that could result in a prison sentence of several years if convicted. Those who steal cars do it for more than a free ride, Macari said. Owners often leave purses, wallets and cell phones in their vehicles, so identity theft and credit card fraud are offenses that are being added more commonly in auto theft investigations.
“It’s unpredictable when it can happen,” said Laurie Harris, assistant manager of Sun King Apartments, 5900 E. Thomas Road, a complex that has experienced auto thefts for several years.
“We still have incidents, but it’s a lot less,” Harris said. “We think the signs and having a bait car stationed somewhere in our lot is a great idea. Anything that deters someone from committing a crime is great.”
Bait car warning signs can be seen in Sun King’s parking lot and at L.A. Fitness, 1900 N. Scottsdale Road, and General Dynamics, 8201 E. McDowell Road, as well as in other problem areas, Macari said.
A spokeswoman for General Dynamics — the city’s second largest employer behind Scottsdale Healthcare — said the company has on-site security.
“This is a sensitivity issue, so we wouldn’t reveal what our remedies are for deterring auto theft,” Fran Jacques said. “By virtue, we have a large number of cars, therefore, there would be more cars stolen from our lots.”
A vehicle is stolen every 26 seconds in the U.S., according to information from the National Insurance Crime Bureau. The cars of choice are Hondas, Toyota Camrys or full-size pickups, and they can all be stolen in less than 60 seconds, Macari said. A vehicle is stolen in Arizona every nine minutes and 48 seconds, according to the Arizona Auto Theft Authority.
More and more residents are taking advantage of programs that mark their cars to prevent thefts. On March 3, Macari said officers etched the vehicle identification numbers on the windows of 98 vehicles in three hours during a no-cost Auto and Identity Theft Awareness Day in north Scottsdale.
Also, 5,100 residents are enrolled in the Arizona Auto Theft Authority’s Watch Your Car Program. It requests law enforcement officials pull over vehicles between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. or stop them within a mile of the U.S.-Mexico border because the drivers likely don’t own the cars, Macari said.
“When an officer pulls over a car during that time, there’s owner contact information inside the car,” Macari said. “When that person is contacted, the person behind the wheel of that vehicle better have permission to drive it.”
Applications for the Watch Your Car Program can be obtained at local police stations, the Department of Motor Vehicles or online at www.azwatchyourcar.com.