July is National Vehicle Theft Prevention Month, and Commander David Gillespie, of Montgomery County Police District Five in Germantown is asking area residents to be doubley sure to lock car doors and garage doors as vehicle-related thefts are on the rise in Germantown.
“These are crimes of opportunity. We’ve seen a significant increase in theft-from-autos this year over last year,” said Commander Gillespie. “We have had more than 350 thefts-from-autos so far this year in just the 5th District. The trend has been that our suspects are going into vehicles that are mostly unlocked.”
Gillespie said that in June alone, District 5 in Germantown reported 82 separate theft-from-auto events. He said the theft-from-auto incidents were taking place throughout the heart of Germantown from Route 118 to Route 355, in apartment complexes and residential neighborhoods. “We’ve had a lot incidents over by Warring Station Road and the streets around there; we’ve had incidents in the Germantown Park area, and in the Waters Landing area,” he said.
Theft-from-autos and vehicle theft can lead to the commission of additional crimes by the suspect, said Montgomery County Police Department in a press release about National Vehicle Theft Prevention Month. “If a suspect can obtain personal information from items in your vehicle, you are susceptible to becoming a victim of identity theft. Also, thieves have used stolen vehicles in the commission of other crimes,” said MCPD.
Indeed, Commander Gillespie confirms that such crimes are happening in the Germantown area. “These same suspects are also committing burglaries and auto thefts as well. In some of these thefts-from-auto cases, people are leaving spare car keys in the vehicle and folks are stealing the car,” said Gillespie.
“We’ve had a lot of burglaries where suspects have entered the house through the open garage, and then go into the residence through an unlocked interior door to the garage, where they then help themselves to the car keys. Then they take the car and go for a joy ride.”
According to MCPD, in 2014, 753 vehicles were stolen in Montgomery County and approximately 30 percent of these cases, a key was left in the vehicle. In many of these vehicle theft cases, the thieves originally planned only to steal property such as cash, credit cards, and electronics but stole the vehicle when they found the key in the vehicle.
According to the Maryland Vehicle Theft Prevention Council, vehicle theft annually exceeds $4 billion and July is the month in which the highest number of cars are stolen. In Maryland, a vehicle is stolen every 39 minutes and nationwide, a vehicle is stolen every 45 seconds.
In the first quarter of 2015, MCPD reported 992 vehicle-related thefts countywide, a very slight increase from the 990 reported thefts-from-vehicles in the first quarter of 2014, according to the MCPD quarterly crime report.
In all of 2014, District 5 in Germantown reported 602 Vehicle-related thefts, a 20.4 percent increase over the 500 reported in 2013, according to the MCPD Annual Crime Report. While actual auto theft was down 29.1 percent to 73 in 2014, down from 103 in 2013.
Gillespie said that officers from District Five have made over 30 arrests since December for theft-from-auto related crimes. “We saw an increase in theft-from-autos in January and February, and then we made some arrests, and the number of thefts-from-autos dropped in March and April,” he said, “But in May, June and July the trend has been increasing again. This is been consistent at this time of year for the last three years, we have had a group of young adults that have been doing these crimes. Each year we’ve been able to make arrests and make a dent in the numbers.”
In response to the increase in thefts-from-autos, Gillespie, and his officers have taken measures to counter the problem. “We’ve had our Special Assignment Team (SAT) out in the community, and our Central Business District unit along with patrol officers have been working with our investigators to identify the people are doing the crimes. In addition to our SAT Team, we have also created a crime suppression detail that has been successful. We have also adjusted hours of some shifts to address the time frames when these crimes are happening,” he said. “The response from our crime suppression detail has been effective in making a significant number of quality arrests.”
While the police have beefed up their response to this rash of criminal activity, he is asking residents also to take action to help prevent these types of crimes.
“A couple of things that residents can do to is make sure you lock your car doors, don’t leave valuables in view, and remember to shut the garage door at night and double check it, and finally lock all doors, including the interior garage door at night,” said Gillespie.
While Gillespie is concerned with autos being broken into and items stolen, he is most concerned with the roughly six or eight instances where suspects were able to enter houses through open garaged doors and unlocked interior doors. “The connectivity between theft from autos and the crime of opportunity of going into open garages and into houses through unlocked interior doors is a concern,” said Gillespie. “I would ask folks to double- and triple-check to make sure their garage doors are shut, and interior doors are locked at night.”
“If you leave your car unlocked, you know that the worst case scenario is that they could steal the car and anything in it,” he said. “But, the concern is the homes. When people are in their homes asleep at night, we want to make sure that people are safe. There is a big difference between something happening to your car when no one is around, and something happening inside your house while you are asleep.”
Gillespie said that MCPD is using a number of different methods to catch and arrest people perpetrating these crimes. He said investigators use items sold to pawn shops, and latent fingerprints, as well as the use of stolen credit cards to locate and apprehend thieves.
He said that in several cases, police have been able to make arrests of people because they were found driving the vehicles stolen from the house they burglarized. “We have located the vehicle and arrested the suspects in the vehicle. In one of those cases, the suspects had a handgun that we were able to recover.”
However, those are the more extreme cases, 85 percent of these thefts-from-vehicle cases are simply a guy walking up the street checking each car to see if the doors are unlocked, he said. “When these guys are doing these crimes they are trying to get into hundreds of cars, just walking down the street trying the doors on cars to see if they are open.”
He spoke of one instance back in the winter when there was snow on the ground, that police were able to track one suspect’s footprints in the snow as he tried over 200 car doors in a night. There was another suspect that admitted to doing 40 or 50 thefts-from-autos over two nights, said Gillespie.
“These criminals are using this crime of opportunity from what is often an unlocked car, to take whatever is in the car. They will go through the car to take credit cards, or gift cards, or just loose change,” he said.
While this problem is on the rise in the Germantown area, it is not solely a Germantown problem. “This is not just a Germantown issue,” said the Commander. “Theft-from-auto is one of the biggest crimes in the County. There are other districts that have seen an increase in these types of crimes as well.”
Vehicle manufacturers have worked to make vehicle theft more difficult to commit by making it nearly impossible to take a vehicle without a key. The Montgomery County Police Department and the Maryland Vehicle Theft Prevention Council ask you to lower your risk of becoming a victim of auto theft and theft from vehicle by adhering to the following measures:
• Keep your vehicle keys with you at all times; not in or on your vehicle. Never leave a spare key or valet key in your vehicle. Valet keys can sometimes be used to start the vehicle.
• Close and lock vehicle windows and doors when parked.
• Don’t leave a vehicle running if unattended.
• Park in well-lit and well-traveled areas.
• Park in a garage if possible and make sure that the garage is secured.
• Use a car alarm and anti-theft device.
• Use a vehicle locator device.