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Car thefts in county on the rise

June 23, 1999|By ERIN HEATH

It's 2 a.m. Do you know where your car is?

Car theft has become a growing problem in Washington County, and police are advising residents to be careful about leaving their vehicles open to potential thieves.

Automobile theft has gone up in the county by 69 percent since 1994, while it has decreased by 27 percent statewide, said W. Ray Presley, executive director of the Maryland Vehicle Theft Prevention Council.

Presley presented the figures at a Wednesday press conference, during which representatives from local police agencies said they would increase their efforts to prevent car theft and to educate the public about how to protect their cars from being stolen.

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Washington County had 152 car thefts in 1994, Presley said. In 1998, the county car theft toll had gone up to 256, after reaching a high of 319 in 1997.

That makes Washington County "one of the fastest growing" areas of vehicle theft in the state, Presley said.

Most car thefts in Maryland occur in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., corridor, Presley said.

Because police in those areas have started to focus on stopping vehicle theft, some car thieves have begun operating in other areas of the state like Washington County, he said.

In many cases, people can prevent their cars from being stolen by using common sense, Presley said.

"One of the basic messages we want to get across is a simple precaution, to lock your car and take the key," he said. "The most effective auto theft prevention device is your key."

From 20 percent to 25 percent of stolen cars are taken because their owners had left the keys in them, Presley said. In addition, more than 60 percent of stolen cars were left unlocked, giving car thieves easy access.

Maryland State Police Lt. Bruce Smith, commander of the Hagerstown barracks, said some people leave their keys in the car when they plan to be gone for a short time, such as when they run into a gas station to pay for gas.

"In those 30 seconds you're in the convenience store, you could come out and have your car be gone," he said. "You're asking to become a victim."

This is especially a problem in the winter, when people tend to leave their cars running to keep them warm, Smith said.

In addition to shutting of the car and taking the keys, another way to avoid car theft is to park in areas that are open and well-lighted whenever possible, Smith said.

To deter thieves, car owners can purchase a variety of safety devices such as steering wheel locks and audio alarms. Drivers who use steering wheel locks may be four times less likely to attract car thieves than those who don't, Presley said.

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