Car thefts have jumped 23% in Orange County this year, the largest rise in more than a decade, fueling concern that other property crimes soon could follow the upward trend.
Professional thieves and joy riders stole nearly 900 more vehicles during the first five months of 2001 than in the same period last year, everything from luxury SUVs to well-worn RVs.
In an effort to halt the rise, Orange County police agencies have stepped up surveillance of suspected car thieves and are crunching crime data in search of possible trends in the looting.
The steep rise follows a slight uptick in car thefts last year, reversing a downward trend that had seen the number of thefts cut by more than half since 1993.
Although the sudden spike has caught some police agencies by surprise, experts point to three likely factors: the recent downturn in the economy, the surge in overseas demand for cheap stolen vehicles, and an increase in the number of teenagers in the population.
“We’ve been on such a roll with the crime stats going down . . . but it can’t go on forever,” said Orange County Sheriff’s Lt. Stan Jacquot. “My guess is we’re bottoming out.”
The surge in auto thefts also has hit Los Angeles County, where sheriff’s deputies noted a 12% increase and Long Beach police reported a 9% rise.
In Orange County, almost every city has seen an increase. In Mission Viejo, car thefts nearly doubled to 46 from January through May. In Santa Ana, the number jumped by two-thirds to 1,127, and in Garden Grove by nearly a third to 413.
Despite the development of sophisticated anti-theft devices by car makers, authorities said auto theft remains a lucrative business. Stolen vehicles, detectives said, bring quick profits and lenient prison sentences compared with other crimes, such as burglary or robbery.
Some models remain favorites among car thieves, with Toyotas and Hondas leading the pack.
Police said they have noticed other trends possibly fueling the recent increase in car thefts.
Los Angeles County sheriff’s detectives report a recent upswing in stolen cars smuggled to Mexico and other countries. There, thieves pass the cars on to “chop shops,” where they are stripped of their parts or sold to unwitting buyers. Other professionals sell contraband cars to U.S. buyers.
Joy riders also appear to be stealing more cars. A slight improvement in the rate at which police are recovering missing vehicles suggests that thieves are stealing more cars for a cheap spin and then abandoning them.
“That’s why we figure a lot of them are drive and dumps,” said California Highway Patrol Lt. Kenn Rosenberg, who coordinates the Orange County Auto Theft Task Force.
The trend, he said, is probably driven by the maturing of the so-called “echo boom,” the generation of children born to the baby boomers who are now entering what experts call the most crime-prone ages: 15 to 25.
For the savvy thief, the prospects can be seemingly endless.
“It’s easy prey,” said Long Beach Police Det. Wilbert Thomas. “They [thieves] ride around and shop for cars. The streets are like supermarkets. They will ride around and snatch them up. Most crooks drive around with shaved keys. They will fit in any car.”
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Auto thefts have risen sharply in Orange and Los Angeles counties during the first five months of this year compared to the same period in 2000.
Orange County +23%
Long Beach +9%
Los Angeles County sheriff’s patrol areas* +12%
* Includes unincorporated county areas and cities that contract with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Sources: Individual law enforcement agencies and the Orange County Auto Theft Task Force.