By Shawn Chitnis

DENVER (CBS4) – The Metropolitan Auto Theft Task Force released data Monday showing an increase in stolen cars since the beginning of the pandemic, up 125% in September compared to just before COVID-19 effects first surfaced in Colorado. The number of vehicles stolen reached almost 500 in one week this month, leaving recent victims to encourage others to take more precautions at their own homes.

(credit: CBS)

“You feel a little violated and you just know it’s a headache you have to deal with when you get back,” said Rob Hanzlik, a Denver resident. “I’ve been hypervigilant, I’ve talked to all my neighbors.”

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The release in partnership with the Colorado Auto Theft Prevention Authority says the metro area averaged 233 thefts in the three months before the start of the governor’s Stay-at-Home order. The increase in cases went up 20% the next week and continued to rise in the last three months, mid-June to mid-September, where the change was more than 75%.

“It puts things in perspective, luckily my wife and I have two cars, but for families who only have one car, we think of them,” Hanzlik told CBS4 on Monday.

He and his wife were on vacation in Alabama last month when they found out about the stolen car. Their family back in Colorado had to hold onto it until they could return home. They are still getting work done on the car and hope to have it back this week.

“He says ‘I believe I have your car, it’s in Aurora,'” Hanzlik recalls the officer saying over the phone. It was a site police say is often where stolen cars are abandoned.  “You can almost take your safety for granted, and then when things start to happen and you feel unsafe, and you feel at risk.”

(credit: CBS)

Some of the frequently-stolen cars at the moment are trucks — thieves are usually looking for expensive tools inside the vehicle. The 1999-2006 Ford F150, F250, F350 trucks and the 1999-2006 Chevrolet Silverado / GMC Sierra 1500, 2500, 3500 trucks were all mentioned by the Task Force. About 85% of stolen vehicles are recovered within 30 days, but it comes at a cost.  Te economic impact for each car taken is $8,407, according to the FBI.

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“Be aware, keep your eyes open, keep your yard cleaned up around your house, make sure you have light,” Hanzlik said.

While the common mistakes made my car owners help thieves, there are additional challenges during the pandemic. More people at home puts a larger pool of unattended cars as potential targets.

Restrictions at prisons because of COVID-19 also allows suspects who might be serving time in custody to be free on those previous offenses.

Police say the increased number of available cars and higher number of thieves with a history of committing these crimes have been met with lower patrols at times, because a summer of unrest has placed many officers on crowd control.

Hanzlik and his neighbors have cleaned up the street where their cars usually are parked and added features to increase security. He encourages anyone in a similar situation to add whatever tools they can to their homes and keep an open dialogue with neighbors and police.

(credit: CBS)

“You want to understand what’s at stake and then take the necessary steps to put yourself in a better position so that you’re protected in the future,” he said.

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Tips from the Metropolitan Auto Theft Task Force:

  • Never leave keys/key fobs to any vehicle in your car
  • Never leave your car running and unattended
  • Always lock your doors and roll up your windows
  • Always remove, or at least conceal, anything of value
  • Use a steering wheel locking device as a deterrent
  • Use an audible alarm or other disabling device, especially if you leave tools or other valuables inside your vehicle every day
  • Park in a well-lit area where your vehicle can be seen
  • Avoid parking in isolated areas
  • If you have a garage or other secure area to park your vehicle – use it!
  • Lock the door between your garage and the interior of your home
  • If you see anything or anyone suspicious or looking into or around vehicles, call 911
  • Ensure you have the license plate and VIN number, the serial number for valuable items such as tools and electronics documented with proof of ownership
  • And use a permanent method for easy identification, such as engraving your name, on the tools to assist law enforcement in returning your valuables to you.

Shawn Chitnis