"It's a huge problem here," said Salt Lake City police Sgt. Stefhan Bennett, who leads the auto-theft unit. He and his four detectives are trying to crack down on repeat offenders, "the worst of the worst," though Bennett knows that "community awareness is the only thing that will make a significant dent in what we're seeing."
He wants to educate people about vehicle crimes and how to protect themselves by speaking to community councils and publishing an informational video.
In addition to car thefts, more than 3,600 people reported a vehicle break-in to Salt Lake City police in 2011. While most were scattered throughout the city, a Salt Lake Tribune analysis found about 34 percent of all car prowls happened downtown or in Sugar House.
Such break-ins sometimes turn into vehicle theft, Bennett said. Car prowlers who only meant to take valuables left inside a vehicle will steal it if they discover spare keys.
In 2011, the 1996 Honda Accord topped the NICB list of the most stolen vehicles in Utah, followed by the 1997 Honda Civic and the 1994 Nissan Sentra. The same is true for Salt Lake City, Bennett said, because those models are popular among street racers who need parts.
But Bennett said owners of those cars needn't panic nor should anyone else let down their guard because a lot of vehicle theft comes down to opportunity.
Thieves love unlocked vehicles. But the No. 1 opportunity is cars left running and unattended. Criminals also steal vehicles to use them in another crime, or to make a profit.
"[Car thieves] can double or triple the value of a stolen car just by selling the parts off," Bennett said.
It takes just a few minutes to strip a car, so they'll reduce the stolen ride to a metal carcass anywhere out of sight, even a back alley, said Curtis Stoddard, assistant director of the Utah Motor Vehicle Enforcement Division (UMVED).
Bennett's unit teams up with UMVED and Adult Probation and Parole to identify career criminals and repeat offenders. They also encourage licensed recyclers to alert them whenever a suspicious part comes their way, and are talking more with outside agencies to share information about crimes occurring around the Salt Lake Valley.
Bennett wants to improve the vehicle recovery rate, which is about 76 percent. And after the 113 arrests made last year, he hopes a renewed focus on vehicle theft will see that number grow in 2013.
But he believes the biggest impact will come from drivers who are better educated about vehicle crime and making life harder for would-be criminals. Bennett encourages citizens to report suspicious behavior, such as strangers looking into vehicles, to deter thieves or car prowlers. He also advocates the use of steering-wheel locks and recovery systems like Lo Jack.
Bennett's unit is also pushing the Watch Your Car program. A significant number of auto thefts are committed during early morning hours when owners are asleep. This nationwide vehicle-theft-prevention program provides drivers with free decals to put in the windshield and rear window to tell patrolling officers that the vehicle isn't normally driven between 1 and 5 a.m., so if they see it on the road during that time, they should be suspicious. More information on the program is available at the SLCPD auto theft unit website.
When it comes to discouraging car prowlers, police advise drivers to park in a well-lit area with a lot of foot traffic, and near a surveillance camera, if possible. Drivers shouldn't leave any empty boxes or valuables inside, and should hide stereo faceplates and cables for gadgets such as a GPS or iPod.
It also helps to record the serial numbers of valuable items to improve the chances of getting them back.
Tony Semerad contributed to this story.
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Lock doors and roll up windows when you park.
Activate the security system.
Consider window tinting as allowed by law.
Use a steering lock or another device to visibly disable the steering column.
Park in a well-lighted space.
Use the console or glove box as a mobile lockbox car prowlers report they will pry into locked boxes.
Leave a running car unattended.
Leave your key in the ignition just because you have remote access.
Leave cell phones, cell phone chargers, purses and other indicators of valuables in plain sight.
Leave your car title in the car.