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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

One thing we're hearing about the bad economy is that it's likely to increase property crime, but here's one crime problem that's been in retreat: car-stereo theft. The crime that plagued car owners for many years has pretty much disappeared. And you can thank both American car makers and China for that. NPR's Laura Sullivan explains.

LAURA SULLIVAN: Driving through the streets of Washington, D.C., patrol officer Mark Lakomec's job for almost 10 years has been to spot stolen cars. Two to three times every night, he finds one.

Police Officer MARK LAKOMEC (Washington D.C.): Like this car. See the damaged ignition? (unintelligible) seat back. All right. This is stolen.

SULLIVAN: He makes a quick u-turn.

Officer LAKOMEC: Now, I'm not going to go too far from my vehicle because they do set police cars on fire up here, seriously. I'm just going to take a look at it real quick.

SULLIVAN: He shines his flashlight on the dash, and like every other time this night that he finds a stolen car, he doesn't find a stolen stereo.

Officer LAKOMEC: As you can see, there's a stereo in there.

SULLIVAN: Thieves are still stealing cars; they're just not stealing car stereos. According to FBI crime numbers, stereo-theft rates have fallen by more than a half over the past 15 years, even as car-theft rates have remained high. Lakomec says thieves will steal motor oil and umbrellas, but they leave the radio.

Mr. LAKOMEC: If you stand on the corner with a stereo in one hand, with the wires hanging out it, and a GPS unit in the other hand, and you're the guy who just stole both of them, I mean, you're going to sell that GPS unit a lot quicker than that box of metal with the wires hanging out of it. I mean, who wants that? Who wants the hassle of having to put that in their car?

SULLIVAN: Especially when cars today already come with good stereos.

Criminologists and industry experts say that's the number one reason stereo theft has declined. In the late 1990s, car manufacturers realized they could charge more for their cars if they installed a high-quality factory sound system.

And that, it turns out, made them theft-proof.

Mr. DAVID BROWN (Owner of Savvy Mobile Electronics): People don't steal factory radios. They just don't. There's no market for factory radios because they normally don't fit in any other cars.

SULLIVAN: David Brown owns one of the oldest and one of the last car- stereo shops in D.C. He says everyone needed a better stereo in the '90s. Factory radios were lousy. But the after-market stereos people bought to replace them could transfer from one car to the next. Today, if thieves steal a factory stereo from a Volkswagen Jetta, they're going to need a buyer with a Volkswagen Jetta, and all they can offer is the stereo the owner had to begin with.

Mr. BROWN: This is a motorized flip-out, and it's a 7-inch screen.

SULLIVAN: All along Brown's store walls are fancy stereos that most people no longer buy. Some from China now cost less than $100 - not a lot of room for a thief to make a profit.

Mr. BROWN: The first CD changer by Sony was $1,500, and that was just the CD changer. That was not including the actual head unit to play it. So yeah, thieves, they wanted that, and they would steal things like that very easily.

SULLIVAN: It was so easy, Brown says, most thieves could remove an after-market stereo in less than 10 seconds.

Mr. BROWN: We would bolt boxes down, the subwoofer boxes to the floor. We got to a point where we were installing car radios in the glove box.

SULLIVAN: Theft was so rampant Brown installed fake stereo boxes full of wires that looked like the stereo had already been stolen. There were the pullout radios people carried around like purses; the removable faceplates that people would invariably forget to remove. And nothing says 1994 like a repeating car alarm.

(Soundbite of car alarm)

SULLIVAN: Back then, thieves - and Brown - worked quickly.

Mr. BROWN: My record for installing a radio in a BMW was something like nine minutes. We used to have little contests back then.

SULLIVAN: Not anymore. Brown says that's another reason theft has ended.

Mr. BROWN: Cars are intimidating. When you look at a new car now, and you look at the radio, it's like, I don't see how you can change that radio; I don't even see how you can take it out.

SULLIVAN: There aren't many thieves who can offer installation on a flip-screen navigation/video/stereo system with a Bluetooth-compatible computer interface operating over fiber optic cables.

Mr. KEITH BROCK (Mechanic): All the way up in there, all right, go.

(Soundbite of drill)

SULLIVAN: Out in the back of Brown's store, mechanics Gary Corum and Keith Brock are busy fixing the sound system on a 15-year-old Dodge Caravan, the kind of car that missed the upgrade in factory stereos. And from old damage to the dash, Corum says it looks like it's had one or two after-market stereos ripped out over the years.

As Corum gets the basic radio to work, you can hear what car manufacturers had to offer in the early 1990s.

Mr. KEITH CORUM (Mechanic): Okay, that's a bad speaker there.

SULLIVAN: But it doesn't take long before Corum finds the wires to an amplifier hidden under the back seat.

Mr. BROCK: You can fold it over any…

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CORUM: That's good. That sounds much better.

SULLIVAN: And a subwoofer bolted to the floor.

MR. BROCK: Go ahead and stick these guys back in.

SULLIVAN: And a couple after-market speakers that had lost their connection.

(Soundbite of music)

SULLIVAN: And there it is, music in stereo, like it just rolled off the factory floor.

Mr. CORUM: Much better, right?

Laura Sullivan, NPR News, Washington.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Visit our website, npr.org, for a slideshow on a D.C. police officer who spends his nights chasing car thieves.

(Soundbite of music)

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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