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Police say a rash of car thefts in Chattanooga this year should serve as a warning to residents who often leave their cars running or unlocked with the keys inside, especially in areas where criminals are looking for golden opportunities.

In 2017 alone the Chattanooga police auto theft unit has investigated more than 165 reports of stolen vehicles, more than a third of which were "completely preventable," according to a news release from the Chattanooga Police Department.

"Now more than ever drivers are stepping out of their running vehicles to go inside a convenience store for a cup of coffee and returning to find an empty parking space, or they are simply leaving them unlocked with the keys inside in private and public parking garages and in their driveways," investigator Ty Cooper wrote in the release.

Having one's car stolen often leaves victims vulnerable to other crimes, especially when an electric garage key is also kept inside the vehicle.

"If that unlocked vehicle in the driveway has an automatic garage door opener in it to allow them inside the victim's house as well, then that criminal just hit the jackpot," Cooper wrote.

Of those 165 stolen cars, 57 were left unlocked with the keys inside, often in more affluent or quiet areas of town. Authorities say thieves eventually learn to target specific areas where residents let their guards down and have nicer cars.

The North Shore area, including Stuart Heights, Rivermont, Hill City and Riverview, has seen more than its fair share of thefts, accounting for 32 of the 57 cars that were stolen after being left unlocked.

"Like any good fishing spot in a lake, if someone learns that there's more fish in one spot than the other, word will spread and people will come in from outside the community," said Lt. Craig Joel, commander of the auto theft unit.

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Joel pointed to one case last month in which a $60,000 Jaguar was stolen with the keys left inside not once, but twice. Officers recovered the car and arrested the thief the first time, only to have the car stolen for the same reason the following week.

"Crime loves an opportunity," Joel said.

Fortunately, the very problem that has helped cause a spike in thefts is simple to address — lock up and keep the keys in a purse or pocket instead of the center console or, worse, the ignition.

"Nearly every vehicle made since the late 1990s has an immobilizer system that prevents a car from starting unless the driver uses a key or a key fob that's recognized by the computer network built into virtually all modern vehicles," Joel said.

"In other words, cars are now harder to steal than at any other time in history, but despite this, 35 percent of all cars reported stolen in Chattanooga this year have been [taken] with the unwitting aid of their owners."

Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at egienapp@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.

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