A downturn in the economy also spells hard times for car thieves

The Baltimore Sun

We've heard authorities say that crime goes up as the economy goes bad.

That's not true for every crime.

Car theft, for example, is dropping.

In Baltimore, the number of cars stolen has gone from 6,662 in 2006 to 5,686 in 2007 to just over 5,100 last year. And through Jan. 10, car theft dropped 35 percent this year, compared with the same period in 2008, from 131 to 85. The trend is similar in Baltimore County, where just over 3,000 cars are stolen each year.

There are two reasons for this, Baltimore County Police Sgt. Robert Jagoe told me during a morning spent with the Regional Auto Theft Task Force.

First, electronic transponders in keys, common in most cars since 2002, have virtually eliminated stealing cars for the sheer fun of it. To start, the car's ignition system must match a code on the key; hot-wiring doesn't work anymore on any but the older model cars, and while it's possible to bypass the new safety systems, it can't be done quickly or on the street.

The bad news is that armed carjackings are up. "They don't know how to steal your car, but they can still put a gun to your head," Jagoe said.

The number of juveniles arrested on car theft charges in the city and county has dropped from a high of 311 in 1995 to 138 last year, while the number of adults arrested on the same charges has risen from 376 in 1995 to 772 in 2008. In 1995, juveniles made up nearly half all auto theft arrests; they now make up only about 15 percent of lockups.

What's left are professional car thieves who strip cars for parts or find ways to ship them to markets overseas. But just as the recession is hurting the legitimate car industry, it's also hurting illegitimate sales.

"If no one can buy a car, no one can buy a car," Jagoe said, meaning that if you can't afford to buy a Corvette off the lot, you can't afford to buy one from a criminal. With no place to sell their goods, thieves have stopped stealing as many cars.

Jagoe and Detective Chris McDonold took me around Northwest and East Baltimore on a snowy Monday. Jagoe noted that many small, independent car dealerships had disappeared from busy thoroughfares such as Reisterstown Road and Liberty Heights Avenue in the city, as well as side streets hidden away in industrial areas.

Some of these shops, police said, were fronts to launder money for drug dealers or places where dealers sold stolen cars or ones outfitted with stolen parts. Even at shops that appeared to have survived the downturn, gates were closed and the lots were virtually empty, leaving Jagoe and McDonold few cars to check.

Officer Mark Bucsok and others patrolled streets in their SUVs equipped with roof-top cameras that record license plate numbers of cars and send an instantaneous alert when one linked to a database of stolen vehicles is detected. One officer can scan about 3,000 plates a day.

On this morning they got nothing.

That doesn't mean we can all relax. There still were 85 cars taken in the city in the first 10 days of the year - a significant number. And Jagoe said more people are burning their cars to claim insurance money or reporting them stolen when they're not.

One man called in that his car was stolen this past weekend, and police found it a few hours later - parked in the man's garage.

"We're seeing a lot of that," Jagoe said.

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