If you own a late 1990s to early 2000 model Honda Accord or Toyota Camry or a pickup made by Chevrolet, Dodge or Ford, you’re more likely to walk outside one day and find your vehicle stolen, local law enforcement officials say.
Thefts of Honda and Yamaha motorcycles are also common, and San Luis Obispo County has seen a rise in thefts of homemade trailers.
“In many cases, those homemade trailers will not have a lot of identifying marks, and they are easy to turn around and sell on Craigslist,” said California Highway Patrol Capt. Chris Day, who heads the county’s Auto Theft Task Force.
The task force collects data on local thefts and provides resources to local agencies to help prevent them.
In California, a car is stolen every three minutes.
In San Luis Obispo County, a vehicle is stolen, on average, about every 24 hours.
While that local figure is pretty good, statistically speaking, local law enforcement officials are reminding residents and visitors that the summer tourism season is the busiest time of the year for car thieves in SLO County.
This year, about 160,000 vehicles are expected to be stolen in California. Most will be recovered, though whether they are in good enough shape to get back on the road is another question.
In 2014, there were 352 vehicles stolen in San Luis Obispo County, according to unofficial data provided by the CHP. That number has been in general decline since 2011.
Day said the task force has found that the third quarter of the year — July, August and September — is the highest for vehicle thefts in San Luis Obispo County.
Those trends vary by location, however. Residents in Santa Barbara, for example, are more likely to have their car stolen in the first quarter of the year, Day said, though he did not have a clear explanation for why.
An emerging trend identified last year by Ventura County authorities, Day said, is the theft of removable third-row seats specially installed in different model SUVs, which can fetch around $1,000 on Craigslist.
How SLO County stacks up
San Luis Obispo County isn’t known as a hotbed of car thefts, compared with other areas of the state.
Nationwide, the San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward metropolitan area ranked highest in per capita auto theft, with 29,093 thefts in 2014, which amounted to 633 vehicles stolen per 100,000 residents. Bakersfield ranked second-highest with 5,211 thefts, or 596 per 100,000 residents, and Stockton-Lodi ranked third-highest with 4,245 thefts, or 593 per 100,000 residents, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, a nonprofit organization created by the insurance industry.
The organization lists the San Luis Obispo-Paso Robles-Arroyo Grande metropolitan area as ranked No. 225 nationwide, based on its estimate of 363 car thefts in 2014, a rate of 130 per 100,000 residents — the best in California.
Day said he did not have a breakdown of thefts by city in San Luis Obispo County but noted anecdotally that authorities are seeing more thefts in the South County. While Santa Maria has historically had more car thefts than any city in San Luis Obispo County, thefts there have dropped in recent years, coinciding with a spike in thefts in Nipomo, he said.
Unofficial data provided by each of the county’s seven police departments and the county Sheriff’s Office show that four cities — Grover Beach, Pismo Beach, Arroyo Grande and Paso Robles — exceeded the national rate of vehicle thefts per 10,000 residents compared to cities of the same size.
The Tribune discussed vehicle thefts with the police chiefs of each of those cities in June. Chiefs from the Five Cities area said many of the vehicle thefts there occur at tourism and shopping hubs. Each year, those departments try to remind motorists and visitors to take reasonable steps to deter would-be thieves, such as not leaving valuables in plain view inside the car.
Crimes of convenience
The 159,000 cars, trucks and motorcycles stolen across California in 2014 were worth a total of more than $1 billion, Day said. That number is a 6.8 percent decrease compared to 2013, which followed a 2 percent decrease from the previous year.
While the vast majority is recovered — about 90 percent — there’s a good chance those recovered vehicles will never get back on the road.
About 65 percent of recovered vehicles are intact and drivable, Day said. About 4 percent are missing only one or two major components and about 19 percent are found burned, wrecked or otherwise totaled.
“If we locate the vehicle, regardless of the shape it’s in, it still counts as a recovery,” Day said. “Of course, that doesn’t really help the owner.”
Day said most of the 10 percent that are never found are most likely driven out of state, demolished, pushed off cliffs in remote rural locations or sitting at the bottom of a body of water.
“Auto thefts are often crimes of convenience,” Day said. “Sometimes we’ll find out someone (stole a car) because they just needed transportation somewhere and they happened to find this car unlocked. Then when they’re done, they’ll just dump it.”
New police tactics
To combat car thefts, some departments have begun using electronic license plate readers in their patrol vehicles, which scan vehicles the patrol car approaches or passes and will alert an officer if a vehicle has been reported stolen.
Day said the CHP’s Coastal Division is beginning to receive those readers and is training officers what to do when they get a “ping.”
Though they are not used often, one proactive tactic at some departments’ disposal is the use of bait cars.
Pismo Beach Police Chief Jake Miller told The Tribune last month that the department will set up a bait car operation if they identify a hot spot or have an unusually high number of car thefts or thefts of property inside cars.
Police will typically use a car that ranks high on the list of frequently stolen vehicles — a late 1990s model Honda sedan, for example — park it somewhere and leave an old city laptop on a seat in plain view. Officers watching nearby will then wait for a would-be thief to take the bait.
So, how can someone reduce the possibility of becoming a victim of car theft? Day has plenty of recommendations, from common sense things to others a bit more obscure.
The obvious: Lock your doors, and don’t keep valuables in plain sight. Use the Club or a similar locking device.
Be cautious: Often, Day said, car thefts result from a theft of a set of car keys left unattended in the home.
Finally, Day said, be observant when buying a car or car accessories on websites such as Craigslist, which do not guarantee the legitimacy of the merchandise.
“These are all deterrents, of course, not guarantees,” Day said. “If a serious thief really wants your car, he’s going to get your car.”