Thornton resident Becky Walker had done everything right when she left her car in the parking lot of her apartment complex.
Locked door? Check. Alarm on? Check. Keys in hand? Check. Despite all the safeguards, someone stole her 2013 Kia Optima.
“I didn’t think anybody would actually steal a vehicle,” Walker said. “I don’t know why, because of course it happens all the time, but it doesn’t happen to me.”
Walker is one of thousands of Coloradans who became an auto theft victim in 2020 — a growing problem during the pandemic that surprised law enforcement.
In 2020, auto thefts increased 55% over the previous year with 27,895 vehicles reported stolen in Colorado, according to newly released data from Colorado Auto Theft Prevention Authority-Metropolitan Auto Theft Task Force. Of those, 20,185 occurred in the Denver area. The thefts cost drivers thousands of dollars in lost property and caused victims’ insurance rates to increase.
Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock said he didn’t expect car theft rates to go up so much when residents started working from home.
“Auto theft was crazy,” he said. “It was off the charts.”
When the novel coronavirus pandemic hit, auto theft trends rose significantly. Three weeks after Gov. Jared Polis announced the statewide stay-at-home order last March, the metro area saw about 261 vehicle thefts per week.
The average increased to 390 auto thefts per week in April, May and June. By the third quarter, the task force recorded 462 stolen cars per week and then 459 were stolen weekly in the fourth quarter.
With the pandemic, there are fewer people leaving their houses and their cars are sitting targets. Before COVID-19, people would come home from work, go to the gym or run errands, allowing for their car to be in different locations, rather than sitting in front of their homes for long periods of time, Mike Greenwell, who heads up the auto theft task force, said.
“These cars are just sitting in a parking lot, that increases the environmental factors,” Greenwell said. “There are a larger concentration of vehicles to choose from in one particular area.”
Patterns for auto thefts are hard to come by. There is no particular time or day of the week when more cars tend to get stolen, he said.
Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said people steal cars to drive while committing other crimes. Often criminals will dump one stolen car after the crime and then steal another from the same neighborhood.
“As the economic crunch from the coronavirus affected a lot of Coloradans, that’s part of the reason you see this increase,” Skyler McKinley, regional director of public affairs for the American Automobile Association, said. “It’s not people stealing cars because they need cars, it’s stealing cars so that they can commit crimes because their back is against the wall economically.”
Auto theft rates in 2021 are projected to be even higher than last year, Greenwell said.
In Lakewood, the county that oversees the task force, there were 54 cars stolen in January, up from last year’s count of 16 cars during the same month.
Colorado law enforcement recovers about 90% of the cars that are stolen, Greenwell said. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, the national recovery rate is 59.3%.
“It’s just a cycle because we recover a car, they steal another one, we recover a car, they steal another one,” Greenwell said.
In 2020 Chevrolet Silverados, Honda Civics and Accords were among the most common stolen cars. There were 1,145 Silverados stolen, according to data provided by the auto theft task force, followed by 956 Honda Civics and 924 Honda Accords.
Greenwell said there are plenty of videos on the internet showing how to steal a car. Older cars lack the advanced technology such as transponder keys to prevent auto theft. Older models don’t need a key to start the ignition — a flaw that the chip keys protect against.
With an older car, McKinley said, most owners won’t worry about a door ding or hail damage, so it’s common for drivers to only carry liability or collision coverage. But those limited policies don’t cover auto theft.
“It’s just not worth paying the extra premium every month for comprehensive coverage, which means of course, if the car is stolen, you’re left holding the bag as an individual,” McKinley said.
Auto theft victims often face increased insurance rates if they have comprehensive coverage, McKinley said. Sometimes, they have to dip into savings to pay for damages and, in some cases, an entirely new car.
For Walker, the missing car is a financial hit. Although her insurance is paying half of her rental car fees, she is struggling financially. Because of the pandemic, her hours at her job have been cut, but the rental fees hurt her budget, especially since the car had been paid off.
Not only was the car her means of transportation to work, but also a symbol of her independence. After her divorce, her car was the first thing she purchased on her own.
“I’m alive, I keep saying I’m alive, but it is devastating,” she said. “As a single woman providing for myself, and only one vehicle, it’s been pretty tough. … It can happen at any time.”
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