How safe is your car in Baltimore?

If you're worried about auto theft, parking in the Cedarcroft neighborhood in February might be the safest spot in the entire city — but be wary if you need to park in Frankford in July.

In any large city, auto theft is a persistent problem, and in Baltimore, nearly 4,000 vehicles are stolen each year. According to the recovery systems producer LoJack, Maryland ranks seventh in the nation in vehicle thefts and recoveries, and certain trends become more apparent in thecity's crime data.

The top five neighborhoods for auto thefts cover a wide swath of the city, from Frankford in the northeast to Brooklyn in the south to Sandtown-Winchester in the west. Each had at least 300 thefts over the past five years. (One cautionary note: The neighborhoods have uneven sizes and populations, so comparisons are imprecise.)

According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, thieves generally target a vehicle either for its total value or to strip it for parts.

"One of the things that makes California a hot spot for auto thefts is the supply of cars and the proximity to ports," said Carol Kaplan, director of public affairs for the crime bureau. She said some stolen cars, in particular newer, more expensive ones, are sent via cargo containers to other countries, where they are then resold.

East Coast ports are not immune. In 2003, for example, Baltimore-area authorities recovered two shipments of stolen luxury cars and sport utility vehicles from an international ring that was operating through the city's port.

For several years, the Honda Accord has held the top spot for number of thefts, and it is one of the most common cars in America. In fact, the top threemost stolen carsandmost common used carsin 2011 and 2010, respectively, were the same: Honda Accord, Honda Civic and Ford F-150.

"In most cases, they're being used by someone who needs a car or they are stripped of parts," Kaplan said.

That's why these three models topped both lists — the large supply of cars needing parts means that they're attractive targets. For example, an older model needs more maintenance as time passes, but the manufacture of certain parts might have ended, so compatible parts are stolen to meet the demand. Likewise, the legitimate supply of parts might not meet overall demand, creating a market for stolen goods.

Kaplan says an increase in newer cars can lead to a decrease in auto theft, because theft prevention systems tend to improve over time. Additionally, she says, a stable economy can keep crime low overall, and more efficient law enforcement tactics can be used to catch thieves.

Baltimore police say the habits of city drivers contribute to auto thefts. Drivers have a tendency to leave cars running outside convenience stores, especially in winter. Others double park and leave their car engines on while they dash into rowhouses on streets where there is no available parking.

Police say that nearly 19 percent of vehicles stolen this year in Baltimore had keys inside, but that rose to 50 percent in some areas of the city last winter.

In Baltimore, the highest number of thefts occur in July and August, which is similar to national statistics. July, the top month for auto thefts nationwide, is alsoNational Vehicle Theft Protection Month.

Auto thefts in the city drop leading into December and plummet to their low point in February.

Baltimore mirrors the national trend, with two exceptions along the rise to and fall from the peak in July. The national trend is a smooth rise and fall; in Baltimore, the trend spikes in March and October.

February has the fewest thefts in Baltimore and the nation, but this could be partially due to the length of the month. Even during a leap year, such as 2012, February is the shortest month of the year.

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