/ 8 December 2004

US police use bait to put a dent into car thefts

If there’s one thing that Americans love more than their cars, it’s other people’s cars.

That explains why there were a staggering 1,3-million cars stolen nationwide last year, or about one every 25 seconds, according to a recent study by the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB).

The cost to the insurance industry and car owners is estimated at $8-billion, and police have a miserable track record of arresting the culprits. In 2003, for instance, 153 000 suspects were arrested for car theft — about one for every 8,5 cars stolen.

The unrelenting pace of car theft has left millions of owners choking with exasperation while police forces around the country experiment with new ways to combat the vehicular virus.

While many of the thefts are the work of amateur opportunists, the biggest problem, according to the NICB, are organised car rings that either smuggle cars abroad or dismantle them in underground ”chop shops” to feed a burgeoning market for secondhand car parts.

The difficulty police experience in cracking these rings means that the rate of recovery of stolen vehicles is constantly deteriorating.

But police are fighting back with a number of novel strategies.

In New York, police spent six months on an undercover operation that broke up a high-profile ring run by an expert locksmith who stole more than $5-million worth of vehicles every year.

The scam was cracked when a police undercover agent succeeded in leasing to the ring a new garage that was actually owned by the police department and fitted with secret cameras to document the crimes.

Police forces around the country are also increasingly turning to the use of ”bait vehicles” to attract thieves and nab them red-handed. These cars are often supplied by insurance companies from their pools of recovered vehicles. They also might be cars confiscated from drug dealers.

They are always models popular among thieves — flashy ”blingmobiles” like the outrageously large and plush Cadillac Escalade or, in contrast, older model Honda Accords and Civics.

Police technicians outfit them with satellite tracking devices and a special remote control unit that allows an officer to instantly shut down the vehicle’s engine and lock the doors, stranding the thief inside until he can be arrested.

Police have to be careful of entrapment, which is making the crime so enticing that it virtually leaves the criminal no choice but to commit it. That means that they don’t go as far as a couple did in a recent episode of the saucy hit television show Desperate Housewives. They left their fancy new convertible in a shady part of town with the roof down and the keys in the ignition after their son was involved in a hit-and-run accident.

But police do place popular vehicles in high-crime areas overnight and at weekends. Then they sit back and wait for the thieves to swallow the bait.

According to USA Today, more than 100 police departments now use bait cars to catch thieves and many of them reduce car crimes by 25%.

The Minneapolis Police Department was among the pioneers of bait cars when it introduced a pilot programme in the late 1990s. Now the force has 10 bait cars and nets a suspect a week.

Police said they believe the car bait team has been a major factor in nabbing car thieves, deterring would-be thieves and reducing the number of vehicles stolen by 37%. Another big bonus: Because car thieves who attempt to steal baited cars are

usually caught in the act, conviction rates are close to 100%.

This success has police departments from Palm Beach, Florida, to Tacoma, Washington, launching advertising programmes that let thieves know that the next car they steal might belong to the cops.

”We want everyone to know there are bait vehicles out there,” said Detective Thomas Hagan of the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.

”You want thieves to wonder, are they stealing one of ours or one of everybody else’s? It’s a crime-prevention tool.” – Sapa-DPA