Howard County police have a novel suggestion for thwarting car thieves: Don't leave keys in the ignition -- and certainly don't leave the engine running.
Four vehicles were stolen along U.S. 40 within five days by thieves who reacted to opportunity.
"It looks like someone is taking advantage of people being careless," said Detective Dan Besseck, the county's lone auto theft investigator. He said it's against state law to leave a running vehicle unattended.
Police have not determined whether the string of thefts in Ellicott City, which began Friday, are related. In each case, keys were left in the ignition -- two cars even had the engines running, they said.
Police said many victims of such thefts think their vehicles are safe simply because they are in a public place. But that's when some thieves strike, Detective Besseck said.
"You should never consider any area completely safe," he said. "Anything can happen when there's the opportunity."
The recent vehicle thefts were:
* Friday, a 1992 Subaru Legacy was stolen from in front of a pump at the Crown gas station in the 9300
block of U.S. 40 while its owner left it running and was paying for gas.
* Saturday, a man who left his 1989 Chevrolet Blazer running in the loading zone at the Giant in the 9200 block of U.S. 40 returned minutes later to find it stolen.
* Monday, a driver parked a 1982 Honda Accord in the lot at Little Caesar's Pizza in the 9300 block of U.S. 40, left keys in the ignition and found it stolen 15 minutes later.
* That same day, a driver left keys inside a 1990 Subaru at the Dunkin' Donuts in the 8400 block of U.S. 40, and discovered it was missing 35 minutes later.
Last year, Howard police reported 1,079 auto thefts in the county. Crime statistics released by police last week show there were 262 auto thefts from January through March.
"You should always be on guard -- constantly alert so as not to be a victim of a crime," the detective said.