Scenes from the front on a July morning in Baltimore:
Dr. Barbara Bell walks out of her Roland Park home at 7 a.m. and faces an empty curb, where her black '88 Acura was parked less than an hour ago. She isn't surprised it's been stolen -- thieves have tried to get the car twice before.
Steven Zucker wanders through the parking lot in his townhouse community, suitcases in hand, sure his silver '93 Honda must be somewhere nearby.
Margery Dellon looks out the window and sees her son's green 1990 Acura is gone. For a brief moment, she wonders if her husband could have taken it, but it's a faint hope. It's her second car theft in six weeks.
Jane Schultz is sitting down to breakfast in North Baltimore, unaware her '92 Dodge is in West Baltimore -- until a police officer comes to her door to inform her it has been in a hit-and-run.
It's the car owners against the car thieves, and guess who's winning? In the 1990s, in large metropolitan areas such as Baltimore, joy-riding juveniles may be the latest common enemy, now that Communism is dead.
For those who have confronted an empty driveway, then the city's impound lot on Pulaski Highway, the anti-theft arms race is escalating. It starts with a naive owner, who may not even lock his car until after the first theft. Then come the gadgets -- locking mechanisms or shrieking alarms first, then more sophisticated "ignition-kills." There are even "talking" car alarms, for those who don't hear enough plaintive voices in their daily lives.
Whether one spends a little or a lot, it all adds up. The National Insurance Crime Bureau estimates $800 million will be spent on anti-theft devices this year. That's an increase of $450 million since 1989.
In the city, car thefts are up almost 50 percent for the first three months of this year -- and 1993 was the winter without five ice storms. Statewide, theft is up 19 percent over last year, but almost 1 out of every 3 cars stolen is stolen in Baltimore.
It could drive a person crazy. It definitely drives a person to consider solutions beyond car alarms.
The moving solution
Dr. Bell, for example, has considered selling her house. That solution also has occurred to Margery Dellon, who instead will try what she calls the "armed camp" approach -- an alarm for the garage, motion-sensitive lights and ignition-kills for the cars. She has even considered a security gate at the foot of her driveway, which would cost $3,000 for the metal alone.
"It's totally absurd," admits Mrs. Dellon, who surveys her wide lawn and wonders whether a security gate would simply encourage thieves to drive across her patio. "It's not only the money, it's the energy."
Steven Zucker, a Johns Hopkins University mathematics professor, has thought about driving a car no one wants. But what kind of car would that be? While some cars are undeniably more desirable to thieves than others, no car owner can assume any vehicle is immune.
Besides, people who are drawn to nice cars hate to give them up. Deborah Kurlis of Perry Hall had a burgundy 1986 Camaro Z-28. It was stolen twice, and recovered twice. (Most cars are recovered.) This winter, she traded it in -- for a burgundy 1994 Camaro Z-28, fully loaded. Why not buy a less appealing car?
"That's giving into the thieves," she protested. She is, however, a convert to the "Club," the best-known brand name among bar locks for steering wheels.
Bus with no tires
George Harris, a locksmith at Access Control, sees them coming and going. They come in with their busted car locks. They often leave with a new security system. He is, not surprisingly, an avid fan of anti-theft systems.
"Someone stole a 1956 school bus with no tires," he says, his voice filled with wonder. "I tell people, if someone's going to steal a school bus with no tires, your car could be stolen, too."
He talks the talk and he walks the walk. Mr. Harris, who drives a 1975 Dodge Dart, has a state-of-the-art security system in it -- the Harrison Hellfire 401. This unit includes an ignition-kill switch and a transmitter, which allows Mr. Harris to check from a distance if his car alarm has been tampered with.
The basic system starts at $195 and the price can rise quickly, Mr. Harris says, up to $800. But he figures most people can get what they need for less than $300 -- still a lot of money, he concedes. He remembers one customer whose car had been stolen five times, yet who was reluctant to invest heavily in an anti-theft device.
Mr. Harris, while not a fan of "club"-like bars for steering wheels, says one manufactured by Kmart is tough even for a locksmith to disable. Unfortunately, the thieves don't worry about the locks. They saw off the steering wheels or -- the newest trick, just beginning to reach Baltimore -- spray the devices with Freon, which makes them easier to break.
In this brave new world that has such people in it, auto manufacturers have found anti-theft devices can be a powerful marketing tool. Consumers can buy sophisticated alarms and anti-theft devices as options, just as they buy air conditioners and cassette decks. Volkswagen Jetta spotlights its security system in commercials.
"Unfortunately, it's a rare driver who has not had personal experience with auto theft or knows someone who has," says Della DiPietro, a spokeswoman for Ford Motor Co., which next year will introduce a new system, already available in Europe.
The Ford system uses coded keys. Try to start a car without the right code and the engine turns over, then dies. Other car manufacturers are working on -- or already offer -- similar anti-theft devices. But no one claims to have a foolproof method.
Take Ford's new system: "It would take a half-hour or an hour to disable," Ms. DiPietro said. "Most car thieves aren't in that situation. But there's virtually nothing you can do . . . to make sure it's not tampered with."
Those are disheartening words to those who, once victimized, want to ensure it never happens again. Who never again want the dream-like experience of staring at an empty space where a car used to be, or the nightmare of going to the city's impound lot.
A low priority
It doesn't help, victims say, that the police seem to think car theft is one notch above having one's garbage cans tipped over. City residents, some already paying private school tuition for their children, begin to wonder where their property taxes go.
Jane Schultz is one of the rare victims who speaks compassionately about the thieves. "You've got to feel sorry for these kids. They must itch to get their hands on a car." At 73, she found her experience helped her learned something new -- how to start her car with a screwdriver, so she could get it out of the impound lot.
Margery Dellon, unlike most, at least gets to face the suspects in one of her two thefts. An arrest was made, which happens in about 1 out of every 5 cases. A trial, postponed once already, is scheduled for August.
She has hired a lawyer to accompany her to that trial in hopes the suspects may be able to answer questions still troubling her. Why did they choose her house, hidden in a North Baltimore enclave most cab drivers can't find? Did they know about the brand-new Jeep Cherokee parked in the driveway? Is the theft of the Jeep connected to the theft of her son's Acura?
She also would like to know exactly where the thieves went. Mrs. Dellon's Jeep had 1,000 miles on it when it disappeared. When it was found three days later, more than 1,600 miles had clicked on the odometer.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
In preventing car theft, nothing is foolproof, experts caution. But here are a few tips:
* Passive is best. Some systems, often offered as options on newer cars, work automatically, without the driver doing anything. Look for one that will disable the engine if the car is started without a key.
* Whatever you've got, use it consistently and use it visibly. A lot of stolen cars turn up with "club"-type bars in the trunk. A sticker or flashing red light, advertising the use of an alarm system, may provide an additional deterrent. A professional may come after your car with a tow truck, but the joy-rider -- far more common in the Baltimore metropolitan area -- is looking for an easy mark.
* Avoid vehicles that are particularly attractive to thieves -- sports cars and luxury trucks.
* Finally, take the key out of the ignition. In up to 20 percent of theft cases, that's how it all begins.