Lock your cars. Don’t leave your keys in the vehicle. And use surveillance cameras, if possible.
This is the advice Columbus police are giving for citizens who are experiencing more vehicle break-ins this year.
The numbers don’t lie. Entering autos is one of the most frequent property crimes in the city, and according to initial crime statistics from 2014, the number of entering autos is on the rise with 1,591 reported as of July 31. That’s almost a 20 percent increase over the same time period in 2013, with 1,334 reported, according to the Columbus Police Department Crime Analysis Unit.
The break-ins are happening everywhere with reports coming in from downtown Columbus, Midtown and north Columbus neighborhoods.
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Burglary and Theft Unit Sgt. John Crump said police are often inundated with entering autos, sometimes handling dozens of cases in a week. Often, the break-ins are clustered together in a single parking lot or neighborhood, he said.
“It’s not slowing down,” Crump said. “They’re doing it in shopping centers, in apartment complexes, in residential areas, parking garages — just everywhere. You’ll have groups of two of three guys walking the streets at night, and they’ll walk the whole neighborhood checking cars.”
One of the most common trends? People are leaving their vehicles unlocked.
While thieves sometimes smash car windows, they often just have to open the door and grab whatever valuables they find inside.
“People don’t lock their cars,” Crump said. “A lot of people leave their cars unlocked with guns in it. The biggest thing they’re going after now is change in the ashtray. Anything they can pick up and walk off with, they’re taking.”
Police have also responded to several thefts where a victim’s keys — and sometimes the vehicle — were taken after the victim left the keys for someone else to pick up.
“A lot of people leave their keys in their unlocked car — under the floor mat, in the dash compartment,” Crump said. “They think they’re the only ones that do it.”
Cases are further complicated when victims are unable to describe items stolen or provide serial numbers, Crump said. Even if the stolen goods are later recovered at a pawn shop, police often are unable to return the items to the owners because the owners do not have any information to prove the goods were theirs.
“We’ll ask a victim what kind of GPS was stolen, and they’ll tell us it was black,” Crump said.
The volume of entering autos coupled with poor security practices often means the victim’s chance of recovering stolen objects are “slim to none,” Crump said. Police routinely collect fingerprints and other evidence from car break-ins, but without a suspect description or surveillance footage it can be difficult to connect someone to the crime.
“Nobody breaks into cars the first time and gets caught,” Crump said. “They break into 90 and then they get caught.”
Besides locking vehicles, not leaving valuables in plain sight and writing down serial numbers, Crump said residents that want to curb break-ins should take turn on outside lights or use surveillance cameras. Even cameras used for hunting can aid in apprehending a thief, Crump said.
“We had one case recently that was solved using a deer camera. That’s a camera that when the motion sensor senses an animal going by, it will take pictures,” Crump said. “A lot of times when your car is broken into, an ID unit will show up and they’ll take fingerprints. Sometimes that leads to something, sometimes that won’t.
"But if you’ve got a picture of someone, then we’ll put it on TV or in the paper and someone will recognize them.”