Stay-at-Home 2020: You’ve Checked on Your Friends– Have You Checked on Your Car?

An arrest of a prolific auto thief in West Seattle last week threw a spotlight on an emerging crime of opportunity in a time of stay-at-home orders and significantly reduced vehicle traffic in Seattle.

On April 9th, SPD Major Crimes Task Force (MCTF) detectives were conducting an operation, targeting a prolific auto thief they’d learned was in possession of a stolen white Honda Civic and was keeping it at a West Seattle home.

Police later found the man sitting in the driver’s seat of the Honda outside the home, but when they ran the vehicle’s license plate, they discovered the Honda hadn’t been reported stolen.

Detectives tracked down a phone number for the Honda’s registered owner and called the man, who told police that, as far as he knew, his vehicle was still at his Ballard home. When detectives asked the man to go out and check on his car, he found it had been stolen. Detectives, Southwest Precinct Anti-Crime Team and patrol officers quickly arrested the thief and booked him into the King County Jail for possession of a stolen vehicle.

This isn’t the first instance, during our current quarantine era, that thieves have taken advantage of reduced vehicle travel in our region.

“We’ve been seeing a spike in auto theft,” says SPD Auto Theft Unit Lieutenant Tom Yoon. “With the stay home order, people aren’t driving their cars and don’t realize they’ve been stolen.”

Over the last month, police have received 300 auto thefts, a 24-percent uptick for the 258 reports made over the same time last year.

Under normal circumstances, once someone calls into 911 to report their vehicle’s been stolen, police enter the car’s license plate into a nationwide stolen vehicle database. Then, officers out on patrol, police and parking enforcement vehicles outfitted with license plate readers can check against that database and immediately alert officers if a stolen car rolls past so they can arrest a thief and recover the car. But police are only able to look for, and recover, cars, trucks and motorcycles that have been reported stolen.

Now, with hundreds of thousands of Seattle residents sitting tight under the state’s stay-at-home orders and (keep up the good work, everybody!) and with the City suspending 72-hour parking restrictions in many residential areas, it may be days before a vehicle owner realizes their car’s gone missing.

Despite the increase in auto thefts, many stolen cars in our region are recovered and returned. Thieves often only drive a car for a few days before dumping the vehicle and stealing another, and chop shops are exceedingly rare in our area.

So, right now, if you’re able, Lt. Yoon has a request: go check on your car. If it’s not where you left it, call 911. If it’s still there, great. Be sure to check on it again soon.