For the first time in years, the greater Seattle area is no longer ranked as one of the nation's top 10 "hot spots" for car thefts.
The ranking was determined by the National Insurance Crime Bureau, a nonprofit organization that uses data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation to determine which cities have the most vehicle thefts per 100,000 people.
Seattle and Tacoma had previously been ranked ninth and 10th in 2002 but were edged out in 2003 by San Diego and Detroit. Seattle is ranked 11th this year; Tacoma is 14th.
The lower rankings, however, did not reflect a decline in number of car thefts in the region. That figure rose slightly this year, from 20,637 car thefts in 2002 to 21,442 in 2003, the most recent year FBI statistics were available.
Overall, Washington ranked sixth in the nation for vehicle thefts per capita, according to FBI statistics. California topped the list, with six cities ranked among the top 10 "hot spots."
There are several reasons the Seattle-Tacoma area ranked so high, but chief among them is that the region is a busy international seaport and some stolen cars are illegally exported from here each year. The insurance-crime bureau has estimated that as many as 200,000 stolen cars are illegally exported each year from ports nationwide.
"It is a problem," said the bureau's special agent Scott Wagner. But, he said, there simply aren't enough U.S. Customs officers to search every shipping container that passes through the area's ports.
Most of the cars illegally exported are in containers on ships bound for Russia, Romania, Germany or China, he said. Russia is likely the most common destination, he said, because of that country's busy auto-salvage industry.
Consumers in recent years have become more savvy on precautions to prevent theft, such as parking in well-lit areas or adding theft-deterrent decals to windows, said Washington State Patrol spokesman Lt. Wes Rethwill.
Yet he still sees people who forget to lock their car doors or who leave their vehicle unattended with the keys in the ignition.
Since car thieves will always find a way to steal cars, the State Patrol is teaching its officers, on traffic stops, to look more closely for signs that a car has been stolen, such as altered vehicle-identification numbers, Rethwill said.
As a result, the number of arrests for crimes related to vehicle theft "jumped substantially" in the past year, Rethwill said, from 109 in 2003 to 186 this year. The Patrol has recovered 469 stolen vehicles this year as well, he said.
"Bait cars" used
In an effort to curb car thefts, insurance companies and law-enforcement agencies are turning to methods such as "bait cars," Wagner said. Insurance companies donate cars, which are equipped with a vehicle tracking system, a remote engine kill and cameras inside the car. The cars are given to local police agencies, which park them in shopping-center lots.
When thieves break in, agents from the insurance-crime bureau can track the car's location and notify local police. When police pull the vehicle over, the insurance-crime bureau can kill the car's engine and lock the thief inside the car, Wagner said.
"It's a great tool for law enforcement, and it doesn't cost them anything," Wagner said. The program is modeled after a similar one in Vancouver, B.C., which lowered the number of car thefts there by 30 percent, he said.
The state's "bait car" program has been in place for several years. Beginning this holiday season, several malls also will begin placing banners in car lots, warning thieves that "bait cars are everywhere," Wagner said.
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