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Sat, Sept. 21

PV behind state in auto thefts, but not immune

A Prescott Valley family enjoying a Christmas shopping trip in Phoenix ended their day with a financial disaster. After one last stop at a mall on the way home, they returned to the parking lot to find a thief had stolen their vehicle, a 1990 Suburban stuffed with purchases from previous stops at stores.

The driver had locked the vehicle; tinted windows should have helped conceal the piles of bags and packages inside. Yet someone stole it, along with all the gifts, leaving the family temporarily stranded.

The Suburban remains missing today.

Simple prevention

Prescott Valley police spokesman Lt. P.J. Janik said Prescott Valley has never been particularly hard hit by car thieves, although vehicle burglaries are another story.

"We had 30 vehicle thefts last year," he said. "We made 13 arrests and we recovered a significant number of the vehicles."

One of the benefits of small-town living, the lack of such crimes may lull residents into a false sense of security when they travel elsewhere.

While probably impossible to deter the most determined professional car thief, drivers can still take precautions against losing their vehicles to those looking for a theft of opportunity.

"Leaving keys in the car, or just leaving the car unlocked, is one of the primary things involved in car thefts," Janik said. "Just as bad is leaving the garage door opener in the car. If a thief gets hold of that, now he has access to the house."

Police recommend owners garage their vehicles every night to prevent opportunistic thieves from stealing or burglarizing their cars.

Vehicle burglaries are common in Prescott Valley, with several reported to police each week.

"It's also not a good idea to leave keys in the ignition even when the car is in the garage," Janik said.

Car owners give thieves another easy opportunity when they hide an extra door and ignition key somewhere outside their vehicles.

"I'm not a big advocate of hiding an extra key anywhere on the vehicle," Janik said. "Everyplace you think of hiding a key, a thief would look for it there."

Theft devices

Before the 1970s, cars with ignition switches in the dashboard were relatively easy to "hot wire" or bypass. Car manufacturers began mounting ignition switches in the steering column to deter hot wiring, and to lock the steering wheel when the driver removed the key.

But professional thieves use a device that can remove the entire steering column ignition lock in seconds. And difficult to guard against is the thief with a "skeleton key," Janik said.

"There are certain import car manufacturers that used that skeleton key system, and some thieves get hold of the keys," he said. Gang members in Tempe, where Janik used to serve on the police department, were adept at acquiring skeleton keys and stealing cars, he said.

The thief who stole a Pathfinder from Prescott Country Club and crashed it in Prescott during a police pursuit last January, killing three young men, used such a skeleton key, Janik said.

He said newer cars are becoming increasingly difficult to hot wire.

"Most newer cars have keys with a microchip that 'talks' to the car's ignition, telling it, 'It's OK to start the car.'

That's why the keys can be real expensive to replace," he said. "While that still doesn't make it impossible to steal the car, the thief is going to have to work harder at it, maybe pop the hood or whatever. That's why it's a good idea to always park in a well-lighted spot with a lot of pedestrian traffic."

Anti-theft devices

Janik said anti-theft devices such as alarms and the popular steering wheel lock called The Club are useful only when used properly.

"The Club really works, but only to the extent that you put it on properly," he said. "And it doesn't do any good to leave the Club's keys on the car seat - I've seen that happen. Some people install those blinking red diodes that makes it look like there's an alarm system installed, but thieves will 'test' it, see what it takes to set it off, and a good thief can tell a fake one from a real one."

One anti-theft device, the Lojack system, works after a thief steals the vehicle. The Lojack is a radio transmitter, similar to an aircraft crash locator beacon, that leads police to the stolen vehicle. The manufacturer has more information on its website at www.lojack.com.

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