Theft from area cars on the rise

Thefts from cars have increased in Foggy Bottom, and police tackling the crime trend said local residents are not careful enough with their property. The solution? Hide the iPod.

Stolen property from automobiles is one of the most common crimes in the Metropolitan Police Department’s Second District, which includes the northwest portion of the city. There have been almost 300 incidents in the past year, and law enforcement officials cite a growing problem across the city. The primary cause of the problem, they said, is more people leaving valuables and electronics in plain sight.

The District has one of the highest theft-from-vehicle rates per capita in the nation, according to the Maryland Vehicle Theft Prevention Council.

Perpetrators are targeting cars where objects such as computers, iPods and GPS systems are left visible by owners.

“You are dangling a carrot in front of them when you could just put it in the trunk or out of view,” said Phillip Lanciano, an MPD lieutenant who oversees Foggy Bottom. “Chances are a person marks a car by what they see when passing by.”

The cars getting robbed are usually not registered in the District, he added.

“We look at the tags of the vehicles that are robbed and most are registered from out of town,” Lanciano said. “It is very infrequent that we get a car registered in D.C. that is broken into.”

Allison Shields, a 29 year-old graduate student at Catholic, had a laptop, iPod and several credit cards stolen when her car was broken into last week at 24th and M streets.

“It was still light outside, my husband and I went in for about an hour,” she said. “He isn’t used to driving a car that doesn’t have a trunk, so he left his laptop bag right there on the seat. They broke into my car and took the laptop.”

MPD is taking several measures to prevent these robberies, said Traci Hughes, a spokesperson for the agency. They put educational flyers on cars, gas stations and convenience stores to remind drivers of the dangers of auto theft. Because of a heavy tourist population, police are especially active in patrolling and distributing literature during big events such as the Cherry Blossom Festival and Memorial Day.

“It’s obviously become a big enough problem that this is the first time I have seen fliers on cars, and I’ve lived in Foggy Bottom for ten years,” said Joy Howell, president of the Foggy Bottom Association.

An alert and responsive community is often the best crime prevention tool, Lanciano said.

“Yesterday, a car in PSA 205 was broken into by someone throwing a brick through the window,” he said. “Some citizens had noticed the man suspiciously hanging around the car and were actually able to apprehend him. Thieves will get spooked by anyone on the street.”

GW’s University Police Department is also helpful in stopping car robberies in the area because of the sheer number of officers patrolling the streets. UPD cars, foot patrols, and even the eyes and ears of the students are a great help, Lanciano said.

“Within the campus boundary we only had two thefts. Two of eight (in Foggy Bottom); that’s really good,” he said.

The use of “bait cars” is another preventative measure taken by MPD to stop people from actually stealing the cars. Bait cars look just like real cars but are rigged with video and audio equipment as well as engines that can be remotely shut down. Police often leave keys dangling in unlocked doors to tempt thieves and can then track the car to catch the perpetrator. Fifty-six arrests were made through the program between 2002 and 2006.

“Even people who most routinely steal cars can’t tell the difference,” Lanciano said.

There are several ways police can track items stolen from cars. Sometimes detectives are able to track the serial numbers of electronic devices such as GPS or laptops once they are used. It is often difficult however as most are shipped out of the country within 24 hours of being stolen, Lanciano said.

Oftentimes, this strategy is only effective if the equipment has been registered and the owners can reproduce these identification markers. Both MPD and UPD have initiated programs on their Web sites encouraging students to keep records of their valuable items in order to prevent theft and better assist in recovering items once they are stolen. UPD also offers to engrave identification tags on valuable items at their headquarters on G Street.

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