Betty Goodwine had loaded her bags and Christmas presents into the car and cranked the engine. She just needed to run back into her Columbia home for her purse before leaving town to visit family.
“I wasn’t in the house two minutes and it was gone,” Goodwine, 67, said of her 2004 Chevolet Tahoe.
Goodwine was one of several Columbians who reported their car stolen over the New Year’s weekend after they left the keys inside and the engine running. Officials say it’s a widening trend that is driving up the number of vehicles thefts across the country after years of decline.
“Here I’m thinking, ‘That’ll never happen to me. Let me put everything in my car and let it run a few minutes,’” Goodwine said. “It happened so fast.”
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Thefts on the rise
The number of car thefts reported to the Columbia Police Department stayed roughly the same last year at just over 1,000.
But the number of car thefts reported to the Richland County Sheriff’s Department increased by more than 100 — from 1,158 in 2016 to 1,263 in 2017. In Lexington County, the number of car thefts reported to deputies jumped from 544 in 2016 to 672 in 2017.
An estimated 689,500 vehicle thefts were reported nationwide in 2014, according to FBI statistics. That number jumped to 707,758 in 2015 and 765,484 in 2016, the FBI reports. Numbers for 2017 were not available.
Leaving the keys for the thieves
Although car thefts have increased nationally in recent years, they are down sharply from 10 or 20 years ago. One of the biggest factors affecting car thefts is technology, according to Frank Scafidi, spokesman for the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
“It’s huge in dragging down thefts,” Scafidi said. “We’re nowhere near the problem we saw in the early 1990s. Auto thefts, nationally, are probably half of what they were in those years.”
Still, despite technology advances and new computer systems in cars that make “hot-wiring” a thing of the past, people are making it easier for thieves to steal their vehicles by leaving them unlocked and with the keys or key fob inside.
“There’s an awful lot of those occurring right now, and I’m not sure what behavior is driving that,” Scafidi said.
Newer computer systems in cars make it nearly impossible for thieves to hot-wire them, Scafidi said. Services like OnStar, which can disable stolen cars, and GPS devices help police recover stolen vehicles.
‘A matter of seconds’
Precise numbers were not available, but “a high number” of the city of Columbia’s car thefts involved the owner leaving the keys in the car and the doors unlocked, according to Sgt. Jason Whittle of the Columbia Police Department.
“All the modern technology nowadays doesn’t take the place of locking the door,” Whittle said. “You can have anti-theft devices, but if you don’t lock the door, someone’s going to get inside your car if they choose to do so.”
Keys inside the vehicle were a factor in nearly 40 percent of the vehicle thefts reported in Lexington County.
“Criminals are looking for somebody to leave their keys in the car running, whether they run into the gas station or leave their vehicles running at home,” said Sgt. Shawn Spivey of the Lexington County Sheriff’s Department. “As soon as they see you do this, they jump in your car and take off, and it’s a matter of seconds.”
Some of the stolen vehicles are recovered, Spivey said. Others are sold by the criminals or used to commit other crimes.
‘You gave them the car’
Having her car stolen and making a police report was only the beginning for Goodwine.
Her keys were taken with the car, so she had to replace them and have her locks changed. And, she only had liability coverage on the SUV, so the insurance company “couldn’t write me a check for $5,” she said.
She recently talked with a member of her church, who works in local law enforcement.
“You gave them the car,” she recalled him telling her. “You gave them the opportunity to take it.”
It’s illegal to leave your car running
Just like in the winter, when people are likely to leave their cars running with the heat on, officials say drivers also leave their cars running with the air conditioner on during the warmer summer months.
Under South Carolina law, it’s illegal to leave your vehicle “unattended without first stopping the engine, locking the ignition, removing the key and effectively setting the brake thereon and, when standing upon any grade, turning the front wheels to the curb or side of the highway.”
“It's not uncommon for patrol officers to use their discretion on whether or not to issue a citation,” said Jennifer Timmons, public information officer for the Columbia Police Department. “Often times, a warning citation is written as a reminder for folks to lock their vehicles and take the keys with them.”
The ‘9 p.m. Routine’
A new social media initiative geared toward preventing car thefts and break-ins has people across the country locking up their cars and posting about it online.
The so-called “9 p.m. Routine” is a nightly reminder for people to remove their valuables from their car, lock the vehicle and lock the doors to their home.
The initiative appears to have started with the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office in Florida, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Since then, law enforcement agencies across the country – including Columbia police and the Richland County Sheriff’s Department – have begun posting humerous photos or animated images around 9 p.m. each night.
In the postings, police typically ask people to “check in” after completing the routine, to which people respond with their own memes or pictures and hashtags, often tagging other police agencies that take part in the initiative.
Tips for avoiding car thefts
▪ Remove your keys from the ignition and take your keys with you.
▪ Lock your vehicle.
▪ Never hide a second set of keys in your vehicle.
▪ Park in attended lots.
▪ Park in well-lighted areas.
▪ Never leave your vehicle running, even if you will only be gone for a minute.
▪ Completely close all vehicle windows when parking.
▪ Do not leave valuables in plain sight.
▪ Park with your wheels turned towards the curb to make your vehicle more difficult to tow away.
▪ If your vehicle is rear-wheel drive, backing into your driveway will also make it more difficult for a thief to tow it away.
▪ Do not leave the registration or title in your vehicle.
▪ Always use your emergency brake when parking, which ensures safety and also makes it difficult for a thief to tow your vehicle away.
▪ Etch your vehicle identification number on car windows and major parts. This procedure makes vehicles and parts more easily traceable when stolen.
▪ Engrave expensive accessories like car stereos, cellular phones, compact disc changers, external speakers, etc., so that the thief will have difficulty disposing of them.
▪ Drop business cards, address labels or other identification inside vehicle doors to help assist law enforcement in identifying your vehicle or parts.
Source: National Highway Transportation Safety Association