How to prevent car break-ins: Winter comforts and modern
conveniences pave the way for “crimes of complacency”
In Greeley, Colorado, 14 vehicles vanished in 4 days. The culprit? Idling, warming cars. Motorists have months of frosted windshields ahead, making now as good a time as any to think about car theft prevention.
We look at headlines from around the country to offer cautionary tales, police-recommended practices, and how to prevent car break-ins (and car theft) with modern technology.
Winter offers thieves new opportunities and owners new
lessons on how not to prevent car break-ins
2019 has brought record-breaking cold temperatures to the West and Central United States—and that’s just in October. In Colorado, four straight days of snowfall left the capitol with five inches of snow cover (and as much as 12 inches in nearby areas).
One side effect of these low temperatures is an increase in the number of people leaving unattended cars to idle. Popular Mechanics describes warming up a car as an unnecessary practice “from a time when carbureted engines dominated the roads.” But motorists still hold on to the convention (and convenience) of idling, pumping an additional 30 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air annually.
Those idling cars make a tempting target for thieves. At least three warming cars disappeared during Colorado’s October snowstorm, despite state laws that prohibit “puffing”—the practice of leaving idling cars unattended. And the trend seems to be spreading, with police in places as varied as Pennsylvania, Texas, and Missouri warning motorists of idling season’s dangers. When police in Springfield, Missouri added up the numbers, the results were stunning: more than 1 in 4 cars stolen with their keys in them were idling.
Still, preventing car theft is a year-round activity. The average number of thefts is actually higher in the summer—possibly due to an increase in the number of vacations and road trips. Meanwhile, insurance companies report spikes in theft-related claims on New Year’s Day and on Halloween. In short, there’s no good time to let your guard down.
Even though total vehicle thefts are decreasing, the National Insurance Crime Bureau reports that a recent rash of “complacency thefts” could reverse that trend. In 2016, nearly 70,000 vehicles were taken with the keys or fobs left inside. And complacency thefts saw a marked increase in a year, growing from 6 percent of all car thefts in 2016 to nearly 9 percent by 2017. These incidents—like the puffer theft shown in the video below—epitomize the phrase “crimes of opportunity:”
Law enforcement officials explain how to prevent car
break-ins and theft
Just a few years ago, Portland, Oregon ranked in the top three cities for stolen vehicles. In the face of what some termed a “revolving door” of unaccountable car thieves, the city’s Crime Prevention Program assembled a guide for motorists on theft-proofing cars. Their tips for car theft prevention include:
Don’t leave idling cars unattended.
Don’t leave valuables in the car—particularly garage door openers, car keys, and any personal information.
Secure doors, windows, and sunroofs. Double-check with a tug at the door handle.
Activate car security alarms.
Protect key fobs with radio-frequency-blocking Faraday bags or cages.
Park in a locked garage. If one isn’t available, park in the driveway or a well-lit and easy-to-see section of the road.
Install motion-activated lights near vehicles parked at curbs or in driveways.
Mark car parts with the VIN, or vehicle identification number, as shown in the video below—and install anti-theft license plate fasteners.
Portland police also recommend reporting any suspicious activity. Some behaviors are easily recognized: peering into parked cars or removing license plates should prompt a call to a non-emergency line. Others are apparently innocent. Strangers loitering in the neighborhood or somebody posing as a door-to-door salesperson may be looking for an easy target. In these cases, it’s essential to gather the information police need to identify those suspects later, such as:
Identifying information: distinctive features, gender, age, race, height, weight, hair length and color, eye color, and clothing.
The suspect’s vehicle information, like the license plate number and state.
When and where the incident occurred.
Cameras are among the best aftermarket security purchases
Consumers looking for more aggressive theft-prevention measures don’t need to rely on manufacturers’ built-in security equipment. For an additional layer of protection, Portland police recommend devices such as:
Brake, gearshift, steering wheel, or steering column locks, which impair basic vehicle functions even if the thief hotwires the car (or steals the keys).
Kill switches and fuel cut-offs—both are hidden switches that prevent the car from starting.
GPS tracking systems used to recover stolen cars.
Biometric identification systems that use fingerprint or face identification to manage ignition.
But recording and reporting suspicious activity could hold the key to recovering cars—and preventing future thefts. Police in El Mirage, Arizona, Lafayette, Indiana, and Michigan suggest that cameras, either installed in cars or as part of a building’s video surveillance system, can reduce the risk of vehicle theft and provide valuable evidence.
In Chevy Chase, Maryland, police say that home video evidence “has proven helpful in identifying and prosecuting thieves.” Kentucky police have gone a step further, telling residents that footage “might be the piece of the puzzle that we need” to catch car thieves faster.
More to the point: entire strings of car thefts have been stopped by home security cameras. In Boca Raton, Florida, police apprehended suspects connected to the disappearance of 11 cars over a three-day period, thanks in no small part to footage recorded with home doorbell cameras. And a similar series of events recently played out in Palm Coast, Florida, where a couple spotted a young man trying to open the doors of two parked cars.
After reporting their suspicions to police, they found that their neighbors’ cars had been burglarized. Police stuck with the case, using additional neighborhood surveillance footage to form a profile of the suspect. During the investigation, a deputy recalled an earlier encounter with a 16-year-old burglary suspect living nearby. He was later found wearing the same shorts seen on video—and confessed to the thefts, helping police to identify the vehicles he’d stolen from.
“This is another great example of how good police work, a proactive community and technology can work together to apprehend offenders and stop crime in Flagler County,” said the county sheriff, who added that car break-ins had been cut in half over the previous year.
Consumers can get results by using cameras to prevent car
break-ins—or to recover from theft
We’ve previously looked at how wireless home security cameras help police catch thieves. Here’s what we know about these criminals: while some approach their task in sophisticated ways, most look for the easiest available target. Unfortunately, most get away with it. But home security cameras have helped to prevent, interrupt, or reverse the damage done in three big ways:
Deterring crime. The majority of burglars surveyed by criminal justice professionals say they avoid homes with security cameras (and the surrounding area).
Documenting suspicious activity and catching thieves in the act. Monitored home security systems can put information in the hands of law enforcement officials quickly.
Identifying known criminals. From porch piracy to auto theft, cameras can provide a better profile of a criminal—and can result in quick arrests when that footage gets in the hands of police, school resource officers, or local news channels, as the video below shows:
Consumers looking to step up their efforts to prevent car break-ins and theft should look for features like:
Selective motion sensing. Built-in motion sensors tell cameras when there’s information worth recording. By producing a series of short, motion-activated clips, these security cameras help users focus on periods of activity. And video motion detection (VMD) activates cameras only when there’s movement within certain “windows”—user-defined areas within the camera’s view. With VMD, a specific camera for car theft could activate any time there’s movement in the driveway, but not on the sidewalk or street.
Wireless data transmission. Wi-Fi-enabled cameras can be installed anywhere there’s access to power (and moved at any time). Unlike hardwired, fixed-in-place cameras, wireless cameras offer a straightforward way to alter the angle and position for improved coverage.
Weather resistance. Look for outdoor cameras with high resistance to dust and moisture penetration. They’re measured with two-digit “IP” ratings, which range from underwater-ready and dust-proof (IP67) to completely unprotected (IP00).
Night vision. Frontpoint offers four indoor and outdoor cameras—each capable of night vision even with no visible light. But it’s the Outdoor Camera that’s best designed for keeping an eye on cars at the curb or driveway. With long-range detection (up to 40 feet, even in night vision mode), it’s possible to have round-the-clock vehicle surveillance even on a clouded night.
Resolution and field of view. Frontpoint’s Outdoor Camera records in 1080p—the same high definition used with most commercial Blu-ray discs
How do you prevent car break-ins? Change criminals’
behavior—and your own
It’s a rule in home security to send criminals looking for an easier target. Rigorous studies (and even burglars’ own words) prove that the feeling that somebody's watching profoundly changes how humans behave. For example, Dutch psychologists at the University of Twente say that using cameras to convey an “intimidating, authoritative” message (one that reminds people of the consequences of their actions) can curtail anti-social behaviors.
Making cameras easy to see—and announcing your willingness to work with police—may hold the key to stopping these crimes before they begin. And it’s worth remembering that protecting your car is part of protecting your home. As a recent video from the Washington, DC Metropolitan Police Department shows, a crime of opportunity that begins in your car may end in your home:
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