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Chattanooga police impound a stolen car from a parking lot at the East Lake Courts on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

2018 top 3 local locations for auto theft

1st: 1001 Airport Road (Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport) - 10

2nd: 2020 Gunbarrel Road (Walmart strip mall) - 7

Tie for 3rd

2717 Rossville Blvd. (Hamilton Inn) - 5

7710 E. Brainerd Road (Hidden Creek Apartments) - 5

Source: Chattanooga Police Department

As temperatures drop, more and more people are leaving their cars running and unattended as they warm up, creating an opportune moment for car thieves.

"That's something that they look for," said Chattanooga Police Department auto theft investigator Ty Cooper. "When your car is sitting outside your house warming up, it's putting off steam from the tail pipe. They know it's running, so all they do is jump in it and leave."

Since Sept. 23, there have been 89 stolen vehicles reported to the CPD. Thirty-two of those had the keys left inside.

On Oct. 21, a car theft made headlines after a man fired shots at a woman as she drove away in his car.

Twenty-three-year-old Donald Domino told police he left his 2002 Chevy Impala running as he went inside the Raceway gas station at 2528 Broad St. That's when he saw Denise Farmer, 35, get inside his car and drive off. He fired two rounds at the car, sending other customers into a panic.

Like auto burglary — when items are stolen from inside the car — auto theft is often a crime of opportunity. And a lot of times, auto thefts start out as burglaries.

"[Perpetrators] break into the car looking for stuff to steal and, of course, if the owner leaves the key in the vehicle, they are thieves. They are going to take your vehicle," Cooper said.

It's become a lot more difficult to steal newer cars without the key because of the electronic systems. But sometimes, Cooper said, people leave their key fobs inside the vehicles out of a desire for convenience.

"Several different suspects have told us that, if it's a push-button car, the last thing they do after they look in the car to see if there's anything to steal, they'll put the foot on the brake and hit the button and see if it starts," Cooper said. "They know people leave the key fob in there."

Another method by which thieves get their hands on cars is through fraud. Suspects go to auto rental companies, rent vehicles using stolen credit cards or fake identification and never return them.

Many times, stolen cars end up being used in other crimes, Cooper said, including drive-by shootings or robberies.

Cooper said police recently had a case involving a van that was stolen in Chattanooga and then used in a series of ATM robberies in Georgia. The thieves backed the van into store glass walls and/or doors to break in and get money from the ATMs.

A similar incident took place here in East Ridge earlier this year when a group of burglars tried to run off with a gas station ATM.

The burglars used a stolen Kleen-A-Matic van to crash into a Ringgold Road Shell gas station's glass wall, knocking over the ATM. They were not successful.

According to Chattanooga Police Department data, October, May, June and July see the highest numbers for auto theft. And just this year, about 39 percent of stolen vehicles had keys in them.

When it comes to recovering a stolen vehicle, it can be a shot in the dark, Cooper said.

From Jan. 1, 2016, to Sept. 30 of this year, 60 percent of stolen vehicles were recovered.

"These cars, sometimes we can recover them within minutes, sometimes it's hours, sometimes it's years," he said.

In fact, on Friday he had just finished identifying a motorcycle that was stolen in 2008, he said.

The main difficulty investigators encounter, Cooper said, is with cases that have little to no leads. That means there isn't any surveillance footage and no witnesses. Without that, police are mainly relying on any GPS trackers the vehicle may have and checking to see if the VIN numbers get scanned.

But most of the time, it depends on the measures owners take to secure their property, Cooper said.

"There's a lot of ways to prevent the crime from happening," he said. " Since the first of the year, like 40 percent of our vehicle thefts could have been prevented because the people either left the key in it or the key fob."

So the three biggest tips police want people to know are: lock your car, don't leave your key inside your car and don't leave your car running.

Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at rhughes@timesfreepress.com or 423- 757-6327 with tips or story ideas. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.

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