Noe Valley Voice July-August 2004

Don't Let Car Thieves Take You for a Ride

By Erin O'Briant

Dan Hubig's stepson was typing on his computer at around 11:30 p.m. one Sunday night in May. As he looked out the window, he saw his family's 1986 Saab--which he had been driving earlier that day--pull away from the curb. "The car just drove off," says the senior Hubig. The worst part: An expensive electronic piano that his stepson planned to use for a school performance was in the car.

According to police and crime prevention experts, it's a classic scenario.

"Don't leave anything in your car," says Lieutenant Jere Williams, who works in the Auto Detail and Hit and Run divisions of the San Francisco Police Department. Across the board, experts agree that leaving your car completely empty every time you get out of it is the best way to prevent a break-in.

Models at Risk

Criminals know certain cars are easy to steal or break into. Hubig's Saab, for example, has been stolen twice in the past year. Last time, there was no apparent damage to the ignition or windows. "One policeman said he thought there was a master key that worked on medium-old Saabs," says Hubig.

Toyota Camrys are also a target for the same reason. "There are a lot of keys out there that work on any Camry," Officer Williams explains.

Hondas, too, are a popular target, but not because of a problem with the locks. Hondas are often "parted out," that is, sold as parts, which are used to soup up cars for racing. Cops often track the stolen parts down on popular web sites such as eBay and Craigslist. Mid-'90s Saturns, too, are often a target for auto thieves.

"Newer cars--in the 2000s--are more difficult to steal," notes J.R. Hubbard, owner of Selecta Auto Body on 24th Street near Castro. "The mid-'90s Hondas, Toyotas, and Volkswagens are way easier to steal."

The later models have the advantage of improved technology, such as global positioning systems and kill switches, which make it impossible for thieves to start the car, he says.

Who's stealing cars these days? The people who steal and break into cars come from all walks of life, says Williams, but one thing they have in common: They're almost all under 30. "You almost never see a person in their 40s or 50s who is auto boosting [breaking into cars]," he notes.

Some car thieves work individually or in pairs; others are members of syndicates. "Most of the people in groups are there to part the cars out. We have career criminals who do it over and over," Williams says. "Then we have the people who want to joyride." Joyriding is the motivation in the majority of auto thefts, he says.

Richard Yee, owner of Noe Valley Auto Works, a car repair shop downstairs from Selecta Auto Body, agrees. "These kids in other areas think people in Noe Valley are loaded, so they rifle through the car, take what they can, and rip the radio out. They just abandon the car a few blocks away, usually. A lot of customers find it four or five blocks from where they parked it." Yee fixes cars that have been stolen on a regular basis.

Park Defensively

Most people who steal cars are looking for an easy target. Your job, notes Williams, is to make it difficult so that thieves simply move on to the next car. There are lots of ways to do that.

Jon Shepherd, crime prevention specialist at the nonprofit Safety Awareness for Everyone (SAFE), has made a career of helping people avoid becoming victims of crime. "Parking in your garage is best," he says. "If you have to park on the street, get it in a well-lighted place...and lock it." He recommends further securing the vehicle with an anti-theft device such as the Club, which can lock across the steering wheel or attach to the brake pedal.

Shepherd agrees with Williams that leaving anything in your car is practically an open invitation to thieves. "Don't even leave your laundry in there." If you must leave something in your car, he says, put it in the trunk before you park. "Also, don't leave your car running or the keys in it when you get out to unlock your garage door."

Shepherd, Yee, and Hubbard all recommend car alarms. "There are better ones now that don't go off when you sneeze around them," Shepherd says. Even alarms, though, aren't always enough of a deterrent, since jaded city dwellers tend to ignore the sounds.

You can help catch perpetrators and prevent future crime by being alert. "If you see someone looking furtively around at cars, or if you see someone who looks like they're doing something suspicious, call 911," Shepherd says. "The cops love to get calls in advance."

Cops and Robbers

In 2003, San Franciscans reported nearly 10,000 auto break-ins and 6,600 auto thefts. Though that sounds like a whopping number, the number of auto thefts has dropped sharply since the mid-'90s. According to Williams, about 11,000 cars were stolen per year in San Francisco in 1995 and 1996. Now the number has hovered around 6,600 for the past couple of years.

In Noe Valley, an average of 11 cars have been stolen every month in 2004 (from January through May). Unfortunately, the May total was 18, which meant that at least one Noe Valley car was stolen every other day.

Asked about the increase this spring, Sergeant Larry Gray of Mission Station expressed his concern and invited residents to attend the next police-community meeting on Tuesday, July 27, 6 p.m., at 630 Valencia Street. "It would be great to sit down and look at your numbers at the meeting," Gray said.

Meanwhile, the police will keep trying to catch the thieves, mainly by shadowing them, says Williams. "We try to see if they are carrying backpacks or something that they could use to break into a car, or if they're wandering around looking into cars," he explains. "Each station has undercover units, and they do the majority of proactive work in following auto burglaries and thieves."

If someone is caught stealing a car, they're charged with a felony. An auto break-in could be a felony or a misdemeanor: If the car is locked and something of value is taken from inside, the crime is considered a burglary and thus a felony. If someone breaks your window so he can sleep in your car, though, or if you forgot to lock the door, the perpetrator will be charged with a misdemeanor.

Once they've caught the bad guy, the cops turn the thief over to the District Attorney's office for prosecution. If convicted, the thief may go to prison for a short while. "The DA's office hasn't been real proactive prosecuting these type of cases unless there have been many instances of the person doing this type of crime," Williams notes. Multiple offenders might be in for a longer prison stay.

San Franciscans can find out exactly what crimes are happening in their neck of the woods by using the San Francisco Police Department's new Crime MAPS system, which is online at "It's brand new," says Williams. "We're still learning how to use it ourselves." Police plan to use the map to track patterns of crime and better allocate their resources.

For the Hubig family, things have improved slightly. Their car, like approximately 90 percent of all stolen vehicles, was recovered by the police. "I don't know what condition it's in, though," Hubig says. "I haven't seen it."

Plus, the cops have something to crow about--they have a suspect in custody.

One thing Hubig feels certain of, however: The electronic piano is history.

A free presentation by the San Francisco Police Department on auto burglary and safety will take place at the Upper Noe Recreation Center on Thursday, July 29, at 7:30 p.m. Everyone is invited.

Tips for Protecting Your Vehicle

c Always lock your vehicle and take the keys. Never leave more than the ignition key with a parking lot attendant. Lock the glove compartment. Do not hide a spare key on your vehicle.

c When leaving your vehicle, make sure that all doors are locked and windows are closed, including the sunroof. The exception is if an animal is left in the vehicle.

c Never leave your vehicle with the engine running--not even for a second. A stolen vehicle is more valuable if the keys are inside and the ignition is left intact.

c Remove any papers from the vehicle that contain your name and address. Keep your car registration with you and your certificate of title (the pink slip) in a secure location. Do not keep a name and address tag attached to your keys.

c Whenever possible, park your vehicle in a well-lighted area with plenty of traffic nearby.

c When parking your vehicle, turn the front wheel sharply toward or away from the curb and set the parking brake. If your car has an automatic transmission, shift into Park. If it has a manual transmission, shift into First or Reverse. This will lock all four wheels, which makes it difficult for a thief to tow your car away.

c Never leave valuables in your vehicle.

c Check your vehicle license plates daily to assure that they have not been stolen or switched. A little solder or glue on the license plate bolts will secure them solidly to the vehicle.

c If possible, park in a driveway or garage. If parking in a garage, lock both the vehicle and the garage. If you have an automatic door opener, be certain the door is down and locked.

c Replace the old T-shaped door locks with straight locks. A thief cannot hook them with a wire.

c Dropping your business card or other identification card inside your vehicle's doors is helpful to police if your vehicle is stolen.

Source: SAFE (