As the Germantown Pulse reported earlier this month, there has been a sharp rise in auto thefts in the Germantown/Clarksburg area over the last six months, with 19 vehicles being stolen in December alone. Already this month, there have been eight vehicles stolen in the 5th-District through January 23, based on information from DataMongomery.org.
The Germantown Pulse spoke to Sgt. M. Fergus Sugrue, the supervisor of the Montgomery County Police Department’s Auto Theft Unit about the recent uptick in auto thefts in the Germantown area.
Sgt. Sugrue’s message was both reassuring and troubling. He said that while there has been an increase in stolen vehicles in the area, it is not because a gang of professional car thieves has moved into the area and is stealing cars, but rather it is groups of young criminals looking to make a quick score doing misdemeanor theft-from-autos who upgrade to felony auto theft.
“It is not an organized gang of car thieves,” said Sugrue. “These are not professional car thieves stealing cars for parts, or to be re-plating, or re-tagging the vehicles.” A process of stripping the Vehicle Identification Number and shipping the car out of state to be sold. “We have no information that any of the vehicles stolen in the last six- to eight-months are being re-plated.”
“Hands down,” said Sugrue, “the largest reason for the increase in auto theft is keys left in vehicles.” He said there were a couple of reasons for this, the first being it has become much harder over the last 15- to 20-years to steal a vehicle without a key. “Cars used to be pretty easy to steal, and pressure from the insurance industry and citizens groups forced the industry to change that. Especially since cars have become computerized, it has become harder to steal a car. Now, it is almost impossible to steal a car without either the key or a tow truck.”
He said the vast majority of cars that are being stolen in the Germantown area—and throughout Montgomery County– are being stolen using a key that is left inside the vehicle.
He said sometimes it is folks who park more than one vehicle in a driveway or garage and need to often jockey the cars around depending on which car is going out first or last in the morning. “Very often a husband will leave a spare key in the wife’s car, and she will leave her spare key in his car in an effort to make jockeying the car around easier. The problem then becomes somebody leaves a door unlocked, and we end up with a scenario where we have two cars stolen from the same driveway,” he said.
Another way cars are stolen, according to Surgue, is through the use of the valet key and often drivers may not know it exists.
Valet keys are often paired with the driver's key when a vehicle is purchased. If the valet key is not handed with the driver's key it may be in one of two locations. The first place to check is in the vehicle's owner manual as the key may be stuck inside. Another place to check is inside the vehicle's emergency tool kit located in the trunk.
“Most people know that they have two keys,” said Surgue, “but many don’t know they have a valet key. Officers will ask victims of car theft if they know where their valet key is and the officers will often get an,‘Oh crap’ look from the victim or the victim have no idea what the officers are talking about.”
He also said the new cars that have push button ignitions that are connected wirelessly to key-fobs which need to be in the vehicle to allow for the ignition to activate. “Sometimes a person will inadvertently leave the fob inside the car, and then a theft just has to get in the car and push the button and off they go,” he said.
“If I can impart one thing to people it is, please, please, PLEASE, take your keys out of your cars,” said Sugrue. “Do not leave keys in cars.”
The combination of valet keys, or keys and fobs being inadvertently or intentionally left in cars and roving groups of criminals looking to steal belongings from unlocked vehicles is the reason for the uptick in auto theft in the Germantown area, said Sugrue.
Sugrue tells the story of a group of six individuals being arrested in a stolen car, where MCPD has a video of the vehicle that the six people were arrested in going into a neighborhood, five people got out of the car and fanned out in the neighborhood and started checking for unlocked car doors. “Five people in one neighborhood can commit a lot of crime in a very short time,” he said.
“Most of the thefts in the 5th District start out as theft-from-auto and upgrade to auto theft,” said Sugrue. “I have watched videos of thieves that begin as theft-from-autos, these people try door handles, and when they find an unlocked door they go right for the glove box or the center console, and they come out with a little fob, and they push the button and look for which car’s lights blink, and they go and steal that vehicle,” he said. “They will park the stolen vehicle in a neighborhood, and go back and use it drive to another neighborhood to commit more crimes.”
He said these are usually criminals that live fairly close to where they are committing the crimes. “In the 5th District, we have occasionally seen people that are coming from out of county to commit these crimes. Typically, most of the people committing these crimes are either from 5D or from neighboring police districts. They generally do not travel very far to commit these sorts of crimes.”
It also isn’t a gang such in MS-13 or that ilk targeting the Germantown area, according to Sugrue. “I wouldn’t call them a gang. However, there is a Montgomery Village-based group which has been involved with some theft-from-auto and auto theft in the Germantown area. In the last year, I have noticed that they have become more active.”
That group calls themselves the Hit Squad. However, Sugrue said the Hit Squad does not necessary meet the legal definition of a gang, but he said that MCPD has made a lot of arrests over the years for auto theft and theft-from-auto of individuals connected to that group, including a number of arrests in the 5th District.
A bright spot in all of this crime is that most of the vehicles stolen in Montgomery County are recovered. “There is a very high percentage of stolen cars being recovered,” said Sugrue. While he didn’t have hard numbers, he estimated that 70 percent of the stolen vehicles in Montgomery County are recovered, many with little or no damage. “In the 5th District, we have a very high recovery rate. Typically, the vehicles are recovered within 14 days. We look at 30 days as the far end, because after 30-days insurance companies consider an unrecovered stolen vehicle and a total loss.”
Just as criminals look for target-rich environments to steal vehicles from, police have target-rich environments where they hunt to recover stolen vehicles.
“Our unit, along with patrol officers and the SAT team in 5D, will go looking in certain areas of town where we expect to recover stolen vehicles because we have either recovered vehicles or made arrests in those areas in the past. We will look in those areas and hunt for the vehicles. If we are looking at a specific area in the 5th District where we are getting some thefts, we have an idea of some people who we think may be are strong suspects based on history. We will start targeting areas where we have had recoveries and arrests, and we will go hunting.”
While Germantown has seen an uptick in stolen vehicles, it is not alone in the County. When asked if there is a clear leader regarding which police district has the most auto thefts, Sugrue said that the answer could change week-to-week or month-to-month. “I don’t want to panic anyone, but I also don’t want to let anyone get lulled into a false sense of security. Montgomery County isn’t Mayberry,” he said.
He also noted that is not a situation where the vehicles being stolen are targeted because of their model or desirability. “In the old days, there were certain vehicles that were stolen. They were high-theft lines,” said Sugrue. “But now it is more key-based thefts. We recently had an increase in thefts older model Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager mini-vans. It had to with a specific way you can defeat the ignition. Those were real auto-thieves. Those minivans did not have the electronic counter-measures that most cars have these days.” He also mentioned that there had been an increase in thefts of white work vans county-wide in the last few years. The work vans were stolen for the tools that were housed in the van.
He pointed out that once criminals move from theft-from-auto to outright auto theft, they are jumping from a misdemeanor charge to a felony charge. “In the state of Maryland, once you steal a car, there are three criminal charges which go along with stealing a car. There is Motor Vehicle Theft which is a felony, and the felony theft statute which kicks in, and then the last one the Unauthorized Use of Property which is a misdemeanor. Typically, a person arrested for auto theft is charged with all three statutes. Stealing loose change and sunglasses or anything adding up to less than $1,000 it is a misdemeanor theft charge. Once a car is stolen the charges become felony charges,” said Sugrue.
“There is no one way to solve this,” he said. “The best way to stop this is prevention. If people would take their belongings out of their car and lock their car, the theft-from-auto and auto thefts will drop. I cannot tell you the last time we arrested someone for auto theft that did not steal the vehicle without a key. If you lock your vehicle and don’t leave extra keys in the car, chances are, it will not get stolen.”
He said the Auto Theft Unit of MCPD often uses community outreach to educate people. “We tell people all the time that if you see a car that has been parked in your neighborhood in the same spot for a few days and hasn’t moved, and you’ve never seen it before, to please report it to the police,” he said.
He said that people are quick to call about a junky looking vehicle parked in the neighborhood but a newer vehicle, that is brand new and don’t look trashy, people will not call. “Often those are the stolen vehicles that have been parked there by thieves hoping that the police won’t recover it and they will come back and use it to commit more crimes in the future. Don’t ever be afraid of calling the police; callers can remain anonymous.”
“Lock your car. Don’t leave belongings in cars. Don’t leave keys in cars. Take your keys. Make sure your garage door is closed and locked,” he urged.
Any group that might want Sgt. Sugrue or a member of the MCPD Auto Theft Unit come to their community meeting to address the issue of auto theft should contact him at 240-773-6274 or email Michael.Sugrue@montgomerycounty.md.gov
File Photos by Germantown Pulse.