Stolen vehicle reports are up 51% in New York this year — more than any other category of crime, NYPD data show.
Police say about 5,420 vehicles have been reported stolen — and roughly 2,200 of them were cases where motorists left their vehicles with the engine running, or unlocked, often with the keys or key fobs inside.
That’s roughly four out of 10 thefts that might have been prevented.
Yet the increase in theft reports “is not necessarily people being less careful than they had been in the past,” said NYPD Deputy Inspector Robert LaPollo, who heads the NYPD’s Auto Crimes Unit.
“The criminals are just more brazen” and more apt to take vehicles when the opportunity arises, LaPollo said.
Mohamed Omar was a recent victim of a particularly bold thief. On the night of May 12, the 45-year-old Uber driver stepped out of his 2022 Toyota Highlander during a break in Times Square. The car was not locked.
As Omar stood by the front passenger door, a man jumped into the driver’s seat, pressed the remote engine button and took off down 42nd St.
“It happened so fast,” Omar said through a translator. “He got it and was out of there.”
Car thieves have myriad reasons for carrying out their crimes.
One is joyriding, said ex-cop Christopher Hermann, now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
“There’s been a lot more joyriding and you also see a lot of young people put their escapades on social media,” Hermann said.
Another motive is young men looking to drag race, an activity that LaPollo said boomed in the early stages of the pandemic.
Cars also are often taken by felons looking to carry out a shooting or robbery, from which they escape by driving as far away as they can before ditching the vehicle.
“They’re used for transportation or to commit another crime and then they’re done,” LaPollo said. “They’re usually found locally from where they’re taken.”
The most stolen vehicle in the city these days is the utilitarian Ford Econoline van, a favorite of laborers and other blue-collar workers.
So far this year, police have recorded 603 Econoline thefts. Econolines were reported stolen 943 times in 2021, also topping the list.
The others in the top 10 in 2021 and 2022 include several Honda models, and the Nissan Altima and Toyota RAV 4.
Stripping a car for parts is still popular, Hermann said, noting supply chain shortages linked to the pandemic, shipping issues and inflation have made certain models even more desirable to thieves.
LaPollo said cops monitor scrapyards for signs their owners deal in stolen cars.
Police sometimes carry out long-term car theft investigations — including a case that closed in September with the arrest of 10 suspects linked to more than 225 stolen vehicles, some of which they were accused of shipping overseas.
The ring made the stolen cars their own, LaPollo said.
They’d steal the vehicles by busting a window or removing a door lock cylinder and driving them away.
Then they’d make a new key and key fob. “They would be able to drive the car as if they had the original key,” LaPollo said.
The thieves would also change the cars’ vehicle identification numbers — commonly called VIN numbers.
“Now they had a new VIN number and they would create paperwork for the vehicle to show the vehicle has a clean title,” LaPollo said. “And they would sell those cars.”
Few thieves are so sophisticated — and about 60% of stolen cars are recovered, including 80% of those stolen while their engines are running or key fobs are left inside.
Omar was one of those lucky enough to get his vehicle back.
After his Toyota Highlander was stolen, Omar called the police and an electronic license plate reader detected the vehicle was in the Bronx.
The next day, Omar tracked the auto to Valentine Ave.. He found six teens inside, including the thief, he said.
As Omar moved to pull the larcenist out of the vehicle, the suspect threatened him with a knife. Police arrested the youths, ranging in age from 15 to 19 years old.
Though Omar was glad to get his Highlander back, “I could have lost my life,” he said. “I’m afraid of everywhere I drive. You never know. I don’t go outside the car.
“I lock the windows and doors all the time.”
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