In the blink of an eye, it can happen.
Turn on your car and run inside to grab your coffee or the jacket you didn’t think you’d need for the day. Come back outside and your car has been stolen from your driveway.
Within the past year, Winston-Salem has seen a sharp increase in the number of motor-vehicle thefts. These thefts include cars, SUVs and pick-ups only: In 2016, there were 670 thefts, said Cpl. Carla Davis, a field service bureau investigator for the city. Last year, there were 946, a 41 percent increase.
In 2018, from Jan. 1 to Feb. 21, the city has already had 142 motor vehicles stolen, Davis said. That surpassed the number of vehicles stolen in the same time period last year, which was 132. Davis said the reason for the increase is unclear, but the thefts do often occur in similar circumstances.
“It’s a crime of opportunity,” Davis said. “You’re only inside two, three, four minutes, and you don’t see someone walking down the road. I equate it to someone laying a $100 bill on the table. It’s temptation.”
Most of the vehicles stolen are unoccupied and running, she said.
There are a few, however, that were stolen through another method, Davis said. Some were taken by someone going into an unlocked car and finding the valet key to the vehicle inside, she said. Or a person found keys to a different car that was parked in the same driveway.
There is no one particular make or model stolen more than another, and there is not one part of the city that saw an increase over another, Davis said. The cars also run the gamut from older to newer.
“There are no two cars stolen in one spot,” she said, though she allowed that SUVs and cars were stolen at a higher rate than pick-up trucks.
In 2017 and 2018, of the offenders arrested in connection to the crime, all were 14 to 20 years old with the exception of one, who was 13, Davis said. This leads her to believe part of the reason for the thefts is the age group thinking it’s easier to ride somewhere than walk.
“There’s no common reason sometimes, it’s been, ‘Just because I can,’” she said.
There have been eight repeat offenders, Davis said.
Vehicles have been found by police at the mall, parks, churches and apartment complexes — anywhere there might be other cars, she said. They’ve also been found near neighborhoods where suspects have lived. Occasionally, they’ve been found on the interstate, out of gas. Police have recovered about 85 percent of the stolen vehicles.
Davis said the other 15 percent are likely sitting in parking lots somewhere. Winston-Salem police are working with area law enforcement agencies on similar crimes, she said.
When people do get their cars back, they aren’t always what the owners may want. About 20 percent have exterior crash damage, Davis said. About 30 to 40 percent have interior damage, including cigarette burns or liquid or food spilled inside. Property is also often stolen from inside the vehicles.
“Everything in a car can be gone, from laptops, cell phones, change, firearms,” Davis said. “Don’t leave anything of value in your car that can be seen. It’s cheaper to fix a broken window than re-key an ignition system. Most people don’t want to break a window if they don’t see anything to take. And don’t put anything under your seats, because that’s the first place they look.”
She urged people to record serial numbers to guns and electronics, making it easier to track them if they’re stolen.
If you do get your vehicle returned by police but don’t have your keys returned as well, Davis encourages owners to take action.
“Do something to disable it until you know if insurance will pay to rekey it,” she said.
This can be as simple as taking the battery out of the car.
Davis said the police rely on the public to help them recover vehicles and catch the thieves.
“Go to P2C (an online reporting system) or call police if you see something or a car that’s been sitting for a while. We’ll ride over and check it out,” she said. “My success is incumbent upon the public. In today’s society, any information is helpful to us.”