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Auto thefts decline in Oklahoma City

On a chilly evening in mid-December, a dispatcher notified Oklahoma City police officers about a stolen Chevrolet Silverado on the city's southeast side.

OnStar, an in-vehicle safety and security system, had tracked the pickup from Osage County in northern Oklahoma where it was reported stolen. A representative from OnStar alerted dispatchers there might be guns inside the vehicle.

Officers located the stolen pickup in a driveway near SE 47 and S Lindsay Avenue. They chased a man who ran from the driver's seat, eventually taking him into custody about two blocks away, and arrested the three other men who were inside the vehicle.

The development of cars that are harder to steal is making business more difficult for car thieves these days, and in some cases, GPS technology is helping authorities to track down stolen vehicles faster.

Auto thefts in Oklahoma City have declined by about 30 percent since 2012, according to figures provided by the police department. Between 2008 and 2012, auto thefts had mostly risen in the city. Capt. Bo Mathews, a spokesman for the police department, said it's hard to say why the number of auto thefts increase or decrease from one year to the next, but one factor that likely contributed to the drop during recent years is advances in technology.

"Automakers are making them more difficult to steal," he said.

'Hot-wiring a car just doesn't work'

Newer cars, equipped with smart keys, immobilizers and location tracking, make more difficult targets for auto thieves, officials said. Meanwhile, services such as OnStar can give detectives an investigative edge when tracking down stolen vehicles.

"The old trick of hot-wiring a car just doesn't work," said Frank Scafidi, public affairs director for the National Insurance Crime Bureau. "With keyless ignitions and the smart keys that exist today, you really can't do that to a new car. You have to either have a key for it or make a duplicate key of it or stick it up on a tow truck and drive it away."

At the national level, auto thefts have declined significantly since a peak of about 1.66 million vehicles stolen in 1991.

Motor vehicle thefts in the United States were 30.4 percent lower in 2016 than in 2007, based on FBI figures. However, the number of auto thefts nationwide has increased slightly during recent years.

In 2016, the estimated number of auto thefts nationwide — 765,484 — increased by about 7.4 percent from the previous year, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program. In 2015, there was a reported increase of about 3.1 percent from 2014.

There are a number of theories why thefts might be up at the national level during the past couple years, Scafidi said. One reason could be if people are making things easier for thieves by leaving their keys in the car or leaving their car running unattended.

"We do see a lot of those kinds of thefts," Scafidi said.

But even with the increases during the last few years, the theft problem overall "is about half what it was in the early-90s," Scafidi said.

"I think better laws, better enforcement and better manufacturing and security features have all contributed over the years to deliver this result," he said.

Pickups are popular targets for thieves

In Oklahoma, the number of auto thefts has fluctuated during recent years.

In 2016, Oklahoma's rate of 309.8 vehicle thefts per 100,000 people ranked ninth-highest among states, according to a review of data reported to the FBI. New Mexico had the highest rate (564.3), while Vermont had the lowest rate (45.1).

An analysis of the 2,771 auto thefts reported last year in Oklahoma City showed that December was the busiest month of the year for auto thefts with 302 reported thefts. February and April saw the fewest vehicles stolen, with 190 and 193 reports, respectively.

Some vehicles are stolen more often than others. In Oklahoma City, pickups tend to be a hot commodity, Mathews said.

"In Oklahoma, we have a lot of construction," Mathews said. "We have a lot of farms. People use those as tools of the trade and they're kind of popular, and you'll see more of those getting stolen."

Of the vehicles stolen last year for which the make and model was available, the Chevrolet Silverado was the most commonly stolen, with 151 reported thefts, followed by the Ford F150, with 101 reports. The Honda Accord and the Honda Civic followed, with 97 and 87 reports, respectively.

In many cases, a specific model was not available.

Nationwide, the Honda Accord and the Honda Civic were the most stolen vehicles in 2016, according to an annual report produced by the National Insurance Crime Bureau. Although those two vehicles typically dominate the list each year, thefts of those vehicles are driven more by older, pre-"smart key" production models, the NICB noted. Honda thefts have fallen since the introduction of smart keys and other anti-theft technology, the report notes.

People who are in the business of stealing vehicles know which years to target of certain models to avoid the newer technology, officials said.

Where, why and how they steal cars

Last year, auto thefts were reported across Oklahoma City, from neighborhoods to business complexes. Individual locations with the most reported auto thefts last year were the Biltmore Hotel (14 reported thefts), Remington Park (11) and the Penn Square Mall (6), based on an analysis of records provided by the police department. Also among the top locations were several apartment complexes, two auto dealerships and an auto salvage auction business. Each had five thefts.

Places with large parking lots, such as malls and apartment complexes, might appeal to thieves because the abundance of cars allows them to have their pick of what kind of vehicle they steal, officials said. Thieves might also target those areas because someone wandering through a large parking lot won't raise suspicions the way someone roaming around a neighborhood might.

There are a variety of reasons why people steal cars.

Some thieves pounce on the opportunity if they see a car running with the keys inside. In some cases, thieves "car hop," moving from one car to the next in a neighborhood while checking to see which vehicles are unlocked and what items are inside those vehicles, Mathews said.

"If they happen to find a key, that's just an extra bonus," he said.

Oftentimes, thieves steal a vehicle to commit another crime so that if police obtain a description of the getaway vehicle, detectives can't trace the vehicle back to them.

He encouraged people to follow common sense practices to help prevent their vehicles from being targeted, such as not leaving a vehicle running unattended.

"Lock your car," Mathews said. "Park it in an area where it's well-lit. Don't leave a spare key inside your vehicle."

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Darla Slipke

Darla Slipke is an enterprise reporter for The Oklahoman. She is a native of Bristol, Conn., and a graduate of the University of Kansas. Slipke worked for newspapers in Kansas, Connecticut,... Read more ›

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