Some people seem to regard their cars as traveling fortresses, bank vaults on wheels into which they entrust their most prized possessions.
They are an unlocked door, a Slim Jim or a rock away from a rude awakening, along with the loss of valuables – anything from a few dollars in parking-meter change to laptop computers and other items sometimes worth thousands.
Car break-ins, or thefts from vehicles in the terminology of the Columbus Division of Police, are crimes both prevalent and, in many cases, preventable.
People who break into cars and trucks tend not to work on spec, Columbus police officer Ted Stacy said. They need to see something inside before they give in to temptation and take a risk of possible arrest and potental incarceration.
If they don’t see anything, they generally won’t try to get into a vehicle, said Stacy, community liaison to the police precinct that includes Clintonville.
“It’s very frustrating to me,” said officer Scott Clinger, community liaison to one of the Northland precincts. “I’ve talked about this for how many years? It seems like we never get the word out or people don’t care until they become a victim.
“We all make a mistake now and then, but it should not be the norm. If you have to have stuff in your car, at least hide it in the trunk.”
Insurance companies are frustrated, too, and Columbus-based Nationwide Insurance lays out a common scenario on its website.
“One of the most infuriating things that can happen to a car owner, and it’s one of the most common forms of larceny in the U.S., (is) the smash-and-grab car break-in,” the website says. “They don’t even steal your whole car, just the valuable items in it, which you then have to painstakingly replace while dealing with the arduous and costly car-repair process.”
“Every report I see, wallets are taken, credit cards are taken, laptops are taken, iPads are taken – I mean, just about everything is taken,” Clinger said of thefts from vehicles. “I’ve seen a whole drum set taken ... an expensive one, at that.”
“We had a guy claim he had $12,000 in his car,” Stacy said. “We had another guy claim his laptop was worth $10,000 because of programming on it. The chances of solving these car break-ins, unless you’ve got a serial number, are zero.”
According to statistics supplied by Columbus police, 9,838 complaints of thefts from motor vehicles were filed in 2017. That includes 383 reports from Precincts 1 and 18 covering Northland, 334 for Precinct 17 in northwest Columbus and 386 in Precinct 3, which includes all of Clintonville.
Theft from parked cars is one of the most common complaints received by police in residential neighborhoods, according to a report from the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing at the University of Albany in New York.
U.S. Department of Justice statistics, according to the university, indicate these types of crimes make up some 36 percent of all larcenies reported to police.
“Crimes in general and property crimes in particular tend to be underreported to authorities,” the Center for Program-Oriented Policing states. “As a result, the problem may be worse than it appears in statistics reported by police.”
Stacy agreed with that assessment.
“If you’ve got a $1,000 deductible and your stolen laptop cost $400, are you going to make a claim on your insurance?” he asked.
Clinger said there’s a simple way to bring down those numbers.
“If people would stop leaving that stuff in their vehicle, then we wouldn’t have a problem with it,” he said. “But we do.”
“While there’s no way to 100 percent deter these kinds of thieves, there are some common-sense steps you can take to make your vehicle a much less appealing target,” Nationwide Insurance advises. “Above all, thieves look for opportunities. Make them ‘work’ for their pilfered prizes, and they’ll most likely just forget it and move on to an easier target.”
Police officials have a flier and printed cards backing a program dubbed HABIT. That stands for Halt Auto Break-Ins Together, and it encourages residents to make themselves less vulnerable to thefts from vehicles.
HABIT tips include:
• When possible, carry valuables with you; laptop computers, purses, briefcases, cellphones and other small electronics are easy and popular targets for thieves.
• If you must leave valuables in your car, secure them out of sight in a locked compartment or trunk.
• Always roll up your windows and lock your vehicle.
• Report any suspicious activity to police immediately.
Officers sometimes put smaller versions of the fliers under windshield wipers to remind residents they can play a role in not becoming victims of smash-and-grab artists, Stacy said.
“Most people look at it, crumple it up, throw it away, but at least they think about it,” he said.
Stacy said he recently gave a speech to a Block Watch group in Clintonville, after which a woman came up to him to relate that her purse had been stolen from her car while it was parked overnight in her driveway. As he asked her about the circumstances, she admitted to routinely leaving her purse in the car out of fear she’ll forget it in the morning.
“I said it’s going to continue to happen,” Stacy recalled, “and she said, ‘Yeah, it’s happened to me twice.’ I tell people, would you take your wallet and put it out on the front lawn?”
Stacy’s advice: “If it’s of any value – whether it’s a cup of change, an iPhone charger, a briefcase, a purse – take it out of your car. Make that car empty, like it’s sitting on a dealership lot.”
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