Thieves have caught the latest car accessory wave, breaking into vehicles and snatching the increasingly popular Global Positioning System units.
"These things are being stolen like hotcakes," said John Townsend, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, which sells Magellan's portable navigation systems. "I haven't seen anything like this since eight-tracks were installed in cars."
In Anne Arundel County, there has been a rash of thefts this summer of the devices, which guide travelers - or the geographically challenged - to their destinations through use of electronic maps and orbiting satellites. County police recently arrested a man wanted in 10 cases involving stolen GPS units, said Cpl. Mark Shawkey, a department spokesman.
Police have found more than 30 purloined systems at pawnshops in the northern part of the county, Shawkey said, with thieves targeting residential and commercial areas across Anne Arundel.
In Howard County, 179 GPS units have been stolen so far this year, more than twice the number in 2006, said Sherry Llewellyn, a police spokeswoman. Baltimore police have seen more such cases in certain districts, including downtown, said Officer Nicole Monroe, a spokeswoman. And in Baltimore County, 95 devices had been stolen as of July 31, said spokesman Bill Toohey, up from 51 last year.
"They're popular, they're portable, they're profitable," Toohey said. "It's the target of choice."
Shaw said satellite radio units also tend to garner thieves' unwanted attention.
"They do get stolen, but at about the same rate as other accessories," said Baltimore police spokesman Sterling Clifford.
Figures are harder to peg nationally, as the FBI's uniform crime report records only thefts of "motor vehicle accessories." Still, crimes in the category generally have risen steadily since 2000, though they dipped slightly in 2005 after a jump in 2004.
Authorities say opportunity plays a factor: The navigation system is often left out for the roving eye to see, or an empty holder is in plain view. Whether thieves seek an open car door or smash the window, more are on the lookout for telltale signs.
"They look for that circle," Townsend said, referring to the mark left by the suction pad on holders. "They see that circle on your windshield, they break into the car."
Those small indicators seem to have led thieves to break into Scott Barber's Chevy Impala one evening this year. Barber, who lives in Hyattsville, stored his Garmin StreetPilot in his center console, so that only the bracket that held the device remained in view. Thieves stole the navigation system but not his satellite radio.
"I guess the criminals these days know what to look for," said Barber, 29. The fear of having another unit stolen - and the hope that the original can be tracked down through the serial number - have kept him from buying a new one, he said.
He's also changed his habits.
"I remove everything out of my vehicle, anything of value, every night," Barber said. "It's kind of pathetic, in this day and age that we live in, that we have to constantly double-think ourselves and double-check ourselves."
The rise in GPS thefts might well have to do with a sheer increase in availability.
As the market has grown more competitive, the navigation systems' average wholesale price has gone down, according to the Virginia-based Consumer Electronics Association. The trade association, which represents members of the consumer electronics industry, surveyed current GPS owners and found they paid an average of $440 for their units, whether portable, in-vehicle or through their cell phones.
Several authorities said lower cost for the units may correlate with what they've seen on the ground.
"They're more popular, and, I think, have come down in price, so more people are buying," Shawkey said.
The GPS market is growing at a rate of 250 percent annually, a trend that mirrors the spike in cell phones in the 1990s, according to Amanda Higgins, senior director of corporate communications for Magellan, a maker of the devices.
Garmin International has seen triple-digit increases in its "automotive/mobile segment" revenue, with more than $500 million in the second quarter alone, according to a company earnings report.
"People are out buying this stuff," said Jake Jacobson, a senior media relations specialist at Garmin. "They're getting into more cars. With any new and evolving technology, thieves are figuring out that it's a hot commodity."
So what's a tech-savvy motorist to do?
The best defense, law enforcement and industry spokesmen say, is common sense. Remove the GPS unit whenever you leave your car.
"If you can carry it in a bag or purse, or take it inside with you whenever you're home, that's really the ideal way to ensure that you won't have it stolen from your vehicle," Llewellyn said.
Monroe agreed, emphasizing the importance of being on the offensive, and not only with electronic gadgets.
"When you're talking about a pricey piece of equipment ... being proactive is taking that opportunity away from the opportunist," she said. "It's not just your GPS. It's your umbrella if it's a rainy day. It's your coat if it's cold. What you take for granted, somebody else may want."
And to remove even the suggestion of GPS ownership, added Townsend, people should wipe their windshield with a microfiber cloth to ensure that the suction-pad mark of the holder doesn't give them away.
"Just imagine every place you park has the potential to become a crime scene," Townsend said.
Montgomery County police handed out more than 1,000 such cloths at the recent county fair to reduce the chances of theft. Between June 1 and Aug. 10, nearly 290 of the navigation systems were stolen in the county, according to police.
Car insurance doesn't cover thefts of the portable systems, Higgins and Townsend said, but homeowner's and renter's insurance might.
Beyond the common-sense measure of taking the GPS units when you leave the car, Jacobson said, Garmin's systems have a feature that allows owners to "lock" the device, which then only works with the correct security code, or at a specific, predetermined location.
"If somebody takes it," Jacobson said, "you at least have the peace of mind to know they're not enjoying it."
Tips for protecting your GPS:
Take it with you when you leave your vehicle. Don't present a would-be thief with an opportunity.
Remove all signs of GPS ownership. Put away device mounts.
Use a microfiber cloth to wipe circular marks left by the suction pad of the mount on the windshield.
Get your name engraved on the unit so that it's of little use to anyone else, and perhaps easier to track down.
Register your unit, and keep a record of your serial number. In case of theft, that number could help identify the device as stolen if someone tries to resell it, or return it to a retailer.