SLO County auto theft rate lowest in state despite recent rash of crimes

Besides being named the “happiest place” in the U.S., the San Luis Obispo area has earned another distinction — having the lowest rate of vehicle thefts in the state.

San Luis Obispo County has 1.16 thefts per 1,000 residents, according to data from the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

That’s low compared with the cities east of the county in California’s Central Valley. Fresno, Modesto and Sacramento continue to be ranked among the worst for stolen vehicles nationwide.

More than 9,500 cars were stolen last year in Sacramento, which ranked No. 6 on the list of top 10 cities for car thefts in the U.S.

In San Luis Obispo County in 2010, 282 cars were stolen, said A.G. Speake, an investigator with the CHP’s San Luis Obispo County Auto Task Force. Of those, 252 were recovered.

There has been a rash of car thefts in San Luis Obispo recently, with eight cars stolen in two weeks, Lt. Jeff Smith said.

Police also recovered four cars that were found here but stolen from other places, Smith said.The thefts were scattered throughout the city — mostly taken while parked outside people’s homes. So far this year, 42 vehicles have been reported stolen or recovered within the city. That compares with 53 for all of last year, down from 72 reported in 2009.

Vehicle thefts tend to increase during the summer, Speake said, which could be in part because of an increase in tourism.

“Often, they’re crimes of opportunity,” Arroyo Grande police Cmdr. Chuck Gerhart said. “Somebody finds a vehicle that’s easy to get into or easy to start, or someone leaves their keys in their vehicle.”

Arroyo Grande police reported 17 vehicle thefts last year. Of those, one was recovered.In Paso Robles, 32 vehicles have been reported stolen so far this year, with eight of those reported this month.

Paso Robles Lt. Ty Lewis said the number is not that uncommon. The department sees an average of about five stolen vehicles reported each month, he said. Last year, 53 vehicles were reported stolen, down from 71 reported in 2009.

Improved anti-theft technology and police “bait” cars have led to reduced car thefts nationally, some experts and authorities claim.

Auto thefts across the country dropped 7.2 percent between 2009 and 2010, the NICB reports.

The overall decline in auto theft cases can be attributed to improved technologies, said Jeffery Farley, auto crimes enforcement detective with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.

Car manufacturers have improved their anti-theft devices in the past decade. According to Frank Scafidi, spokesman for NICB, the most frequently stolen cars are those made before 2000.

“In all brands and all models, the security is better than it has ever been,” Scafidi said. “They’re just harder to steal.”

Technologies such as OnStar and police-operated license plate readers help to recover stolen cars.

In recent years, police departments started using “bait cars” to trap thieves and get them off the street, which some experts and authorities claim prevents future crimes.

Bait cars are equipped with video and audio recording devices that allow police to monitor someone “stealing” the vehicle. The specially equipped vehicle lets police stop the car and lock the thieves inside.

Such tactics have helped Sacramento-area police drive up recovery rates, authorities there claim.

Farley said that out of the 9,513 cars stolen in the county in 2010, 8,900 were recovered, or nine out of every 10 cars.

Arroyo Grande police hope to install license plate readers in five police vehicles by the end of the year, Gerhart said.

The equipment can scan license plate numbers while an officer is driving, and can send a message to the officer immediately if the license plate pops up on a database of stolen vehicles.

The CHP has the same technology in several of its vehicles, Speake said.

Experts say car owners can do a lot to prevent auto theft.

Devices such as “smart keys,” fuse cut-offs and kill switches, as well as starter, ignition and fuel pump disablers, are some of the higher-tech approaches to preventing thefts.

While more expensive cars come with better anti-theft technologies, Scafidi said there are less costly tools, too.

Making sure the doors are locked, the windows are closed, the car is parked in a well-lit area and the keys are out of the ignition are all good ways of avoiding car theft.

“If people would lock their cars and take their keys with them, we would see a lot fewer thefts,” Scafidi said.

At 737,404, this year’s number of auto thefts statewide would be the lowest since 1967.