What’s Driving Auto Theft?
Bergen is experiencing a dramatic rise in stolen cars. Residents may literally hold the solution in their hands.
In February of this year, thieves stole a Lamborghini, a BMW and a Mercedes from the same Cliffside Park address on the same day; all had been left in the driveway, unlocked. In April, an 18-year-old was the victim of a violent carjacking in Teaneck after thieves pulled him from his Acura MDX at knifepoint. In July, the owner of a BMW was in the middle of unloading his car when he ducked into the backyard to let the dog out; a minute later, returning to the driveway, he saw thieves pulling away in the car.
Stories like these have become frighteningly familiar in Bergen County, where, from January to July of 2022, there was an 85 percent increase in auto theft over the same period last year, and a 250 percent increase in thefts of highend cars. That same uptick in auto theft is occurring throughout the state, though the increases there, at 30 and 100 percent respectively, aren’t quite as dramatic. And it’s also evident across the U.S. as a whole, with motor vehicle thefts up nearly 12 percent from 2020 to 2021, the most recent year for which national statistics are available.
New Jersey’s surge in auto theft prompted the state’s acting attorney general, in April of this year, to reverse a ban on car chases that was put into effect in late 2020, and at the same time, Governor Phil Murphy announced the planned investment of $10 million in license plate recognition technology to make it easier for police to recover stolen vehicles. So far, though, the surge doesn’t appear to be losing speed.
WHY CARS, WHY NOW?
Although the precipitous rise in auto theft coincided with the onset of the pandemic, there’s no evidence of cause and effect, but a result of the pandemic may be playing into the surge. Democratic Congressman Josh Gottheimer, whose district includes parts of Bergen, Passaic, Sussex and Warren counties, suggests that the worldwide shortage of semiconductors, which has driven up the price of used vehicles, may be partly responsible for the increase in auto thefts.
It’s likely, though, that the increase is also a result of a change in the way cars are designed—specifically, the way they’re locked, unlocked and started. The key fob—a compact bit of hardware that has replaced actual keys in late-model cars—has also changed the way cars are stolen. “The old days, when thieves would hotwire a car, are gone,” observes Dean Ackermann, Glen Rock’s chief of police. Gone, too, is the need for car thieves to find their way into your car through a window—mainly because owners themselves have made that unnecessary. Ackermann notes that, among all the cars stolen in Glen Rock recently, with one exception, “the common denominator was that the cars were unlocked and the key fobs were left in the vehicles.”
Michael Ragucci, a detective sergeant with the Wyckoff Police Department, estimates that some 90 percent of car thefts involve unlocked cars with key fobs left inside. Sometimes owners make the job even easier for thieves by keeping their engines running while they enter stores for a quick errand or a cup of coffee. More often, though, cars are stolen in the owners’ own driveways. “Thieves go from driveway to driveway and just start pulling on door handles,” Ackermann says.
Sometimes they don’t even need to do that. Many luxury cars have a feature that’s an inadvertent aid to thieves: side mirrors that retract when a car is locked. “If you’re a criminal of opportunity and you see a high-end car with the side mirrors out, you know at the very least that the car is unlocked,” says Jason Love, chief of detectives at the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office.
Ragucci believes that the continuing increase in auto theft over the past several years can be traced, in essence, to the criminal grapevine. “Word gets out,” he says, about all those unlocked luxury cars, “and now, I think, Bergen has a reputation of being easy pickings for car thieves.”
Alongside the rise in basic auto theft, there’s been an uptick in carjackings as well, and they too often involve high-end cars. In March 2022, for example, a livery driver in Washington Township had his Lexus E350 stolen at gunpoint outside his home.
IS YOUR CAR A TARGET?
If you own one of those luxury vehicles in Bergen County, your car is definitely in the sights of thieves, no matter the make or model. “We’ve seen across Bergen County that all of our higher-end vehicles are being stolen,” notes Love. Though there’s no data specific to Bergen, New Jersey’s most stolen vehicles, according to the acting attorney general’s office, include the BMW 3 series, the BMW X6, the Audi Q5, the Land Rover Range Rover Sport and the Land Rover Range Rover. And Love notes that cars of every type, “regardless of age, make or model, are being stolen when they are left unlocked or if they’re easily accessible.”
WHERE DO ALL THE STOLEN CARS GO?
Most cars are stolen for one of three reasons: for their parts, for resale or for use in the commission of other crimes. The majority of low-end cars are taken for their parts, particularly catalytic converters, which contain highly valuable materials such as platinum, palladium and rhodium. Many luxury cars, on the other hand, end up at the ports, where they’re shipped overseas, often to Africa for the purpose of financing terrorism. And any car may be stolen for use in another crime, like a robbery or a drive-by shooting.
Many stolen cars in Bergen are recovered, even some of those headed overseas. That’s because they’re usually left to “cool off”—to sit undriven for the period in which they’re most likely to be sought by law enforcement—before they’re taken to the port or to a chop shop to be dismantled for parts. “Often, an officer in a police car equipped with a license-plate reader will drive by a ‘cooling’ car and see that it’s been stolen,” says Ragucci.
Sometimes, these recovered cars are in relatively good shape. But in other instances, notes Ragucci, they may have already been involved in accidents, especially if they’ve been used in other crimes. Auto thieves, of course, aren’t known for their careful driving, and most are young—“as young as 14 or 15,” says Ackermann, “up to their early 20s”—and aren’t experienced drivers. “A lot of the people stealing cars don’t know how to drive, and they destroy them,” he adds. Even if a recovered car is intact, it may be impounded as evidence if it’s been in a motor vehicle accident or used to commit another crime. “It could be locked up in an impound lot for years pending trial,” says Ragucci.
CAN WE PUT THE BRAKES ON AUTO THEFT?
New Jersey has already put in place several changes to help catch car thieves. In addition to reversing the ban on car chases, the acting attorney general in March of this year added more detectives, prosecutors and municipal police departments to the already established state Auto Theft Task Force. And Congressman Gottheimer has proposed a similar task force that would coordinate federal, state and local efforts to mitigate auto theft. “I’ve asked the president to organize it so we can get everybody at the same table, talking to one another and coordinating with one another,” he says. He also wants to increase security at the ports so that more stolen cars can be recovered before they ship out.
Earlier this year, Democratic State Senator Joseph Lagana, who represents Bergen and Passaic counties, introduced a bill that would upgrade motor vehicle theft from a third-degree to a second-degree offense. That would effectively raise punishment from imprisonment for three to five years and/or a fine of up to $15,000 to five to 10 years’ incarceration and up to a $150,000 fine.
Rep. Gottheimer is also asking for stronger prosecution of the leaders of auto theft rings. “You’ve got low-level people doing a lot of the crimes, just as you would in a drug ring,” he notes. “We’ve got to cut off the head of the snake by following the money overseas. If we can stop that, we can significantly decrease the amount of crime.”
THE KEY TO PREVENTING KEYLESS AUTO THEFT
While additional legislation, increased punishment and expanded law enforcement resources can make a difference, the most effective way to decrease auto theft may well be to convince residents to take responsibility for their vehicles. Recently, the Glen Rock Police Department instituted an anti-theft PR campaign called “Lock It or Lose It.” Its directives are shockingly simple:
• Lock your vehicle. At all times and in all situations.
• Never leave your key fob in the car.
• Don’t store valuables in your car, and when you have to transport them, don’t leave them in plain sight.
• Lock your home. Some car thefts have occurred after thieves have entered a home and stolen the key fob from a hook or a purse.
• Lock your garage, and don’t leave your garage door opener in the car.
• If you see someone trying to steal your car, don’t confront the thief; call 911.
“Anything you would do to protect your home, you should do to protect your car in the driveway,” says Ragucci. “The less attractive you can make it to thieves, the less likely it is to be stolen.”