Police Seek to Crack Down on GPS Thefts

GPS i i

In cities across the U.S., GPS units are high on the wish lists of bad guys. And the odds are with the thieves — unless either the manufacturers make them theft-proof or until gadget-loving owners protect their electronics. slobo mitic/iStockphoto hide caption

itoggle caption slobo mitic/iStockphoto
GPS

In cities across the U.S., GPS units are high on the wish lists of bad guys. And the odds are with the thieves — unless either the manufacturers make them theft-proof or until gadget-loving owners protect their electronics.

slobo mitic/iStockphoto

How to Hang on to Your GPS

OK, gadget lovers. You are the secret to stopping GPS thefts.

Live by this rule: Leave no trace of your high-tech toy.

  • Remove your GPS unit from your car. Do not put it in the glove compartment, or the trunk. Take it with you.
  • Remove the mount from your dashboard or wherever it is in your car.
  • Remove any trace of the mount. Carry a microfiber cloth in the glove compartment to wipe away any vestiges of the suction cup that secures your GPS to your car.
  • Go find that product registration card that came with your GPS unit, fill it out and send it back to the manufacturer. If you threw it out, make sure you write down the make, model – and most important – the serial number of your gizmo.

In Bethesda, Md., police have been able to return some GPS units that weren't even reported stolen by their owners. The manufacturers used the information on the product registration card to help police find those owners.

 

Does this sound like too much trouble? You can always go back to maps.

For drivers who can't tell east from west, portable GPS devices have been an essential navigation tool.

But they're just as appealing to thieves: GPS units are high on the wish lists of bad guys. And the odds are with the thieves — that is, until either manufacturers make the devices theft-proof, or gadget-loving owners learn to protect their portable electronics.

For now, some police are trying new tactics to fight the GPS crime wave.

For example, Officer Dana Matthis, of the Montgomery County, Md., police department, keeps an eye out for parked cars where gadgets have been left in plain view. When she finds one, she jots down the license number and then sends the owner a postcard describing the electronics — from GPS devices to iPods to stacks of CDs — she saw. The message: If thieves can see these high-tech toys, then they'll try to steal them.

Crimogenic

Some crime experts believe portable GPS systems and iPods are crimogenic — that is, they can actually create crimes.

The devices are portable and easy to steal, and they give more bang for the buck — in the pawnshop and on the street — than the haul from the average car break-in.

"[Thieves] probably have to steal six car radios to get the return from stealing a GPS," says John Roman, a criminal justice researcher with the Urban Institute. "So for them, it's worth finding one."

Most cities don't have the manpower or money to go after GPS thieves.

And what's more, most portable electronics owners make the cops' job harder. Many owners don't bother to register their GPS devices with the manufacturer — or even write down the serial number.

So even if the cops catch a guy with 25 GPS systems in his backseat, there's no way to prove the goods were stolen.

Fighting GPS Thefts in Maryland

In Bethesda, Md., police have poured a lot of time and money into fighting the rash of GPS thefts that has affected the region since last year. They assigned a plainclothes police team to target GPS thefts and began sending the postcards to car owners. They held community meetings and encouraged residents to help watch for thieves.

Bethesda Police Commander Russ Hamill says his officers have broken up a couple of rings of thieves. They were mostly teenagers and young criminals who approached the thefts like a job.

"Just about every night, they would hit 30 to 50 cars, going to places where cars were left open," Hamill says.

In Bethesda, auto break-ins went up by 60 percent in 2007 compared to 2006. Although the police in Bethesda do not have 2008 figures available, they say they have seen fewer break-ins this year.

GPS manufacturers could solve the theft problem easily by installing computer chips to track them — but of course, that would make the devices cost more. So unless that day comes, the best way to prevent the theft of your Garmin or Tom Tom GPS is to take it with you. And don't forget your iPod, your laptop, your satellite radio and your Blackberry.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.