MELISSA BLOCK, host:
For drivers who can't tell east from west, the portable GPS navigator is a godsend. Many thieves apparently feel the same way.
NPR's Libby Lewis reports on why GPS units are so attractive to thieves and how police are trying to sort them.
LIBBY LEWIS: Officer Dana Matthis is settling in to her Montgomery County police patrol cruiser and starting it up. I point to an empty plastic mount on her dashboard. She hesitates then she produces a Jensen GPS navigator and sets it in the mount.
Ms. DANA MATTHIS (Montgomery County Police Department): This is my personal.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. MATTHIS: It's been very useful though.
LEWIS: So I can see why it's a…
Ms. MATTHIS: Hot item.
LEWIS: We're off.
(Soundbite of GPS navigator)
Unidentified Woman: Take next left.
LEWIS: We're on a mission to find the cars of people who is parked and left their GPS systems behind. It doesn't take long. We hit pay dirt at one of the county's municipal garages in Bethesda, just outside D.C.
If I were a bad guy, I'd start out with the Mitsubishi, the color of champagne.
Hmm. Look at that.
Ms. MATTHIS: That's an iPod.
LEWIS: And that's sitting right next to a GPS system. I can't tell the make. Plus, a pile of CDs. Nice haul, but we're not bad guys. So Matthis whips out a pen and jots down the license number.
She's going to send the Mitsubishi a post card and let the owner know nicely what she saw in plain sight. If bad guys can see it, the message goes, they'll try to steal it.
Some crime experts believe portable GPS systems and iPods are crimogenic, that is they can actually create crimes. They're portable, easy to steal and they give bang for the buck in the pawn shop around the street than your average car break-in. Add to that the fact that most cities don't have the manpower or money to go after GPS thieves, and the fact that most owners only make a cops job harder.
Bob Mosley(ph) is an expert at using technology to catch thieves. He met me at a noisy Starbucks in Alexandria, Virginia.
Mr. BOB MOSLEY: (Unintelligible) it certainly not a crime to pawn a GPS unit. It's not a crime to pawn a hundred GPS units. It is a crime to steal them and that's the link that we have to make.
LEWIS: But most owners don't bother to register their GPS with the manufacturer or even write down the serial number, so no link.
In Bethesda, police have poured a lot of time and money into fighting the rash of GPS thefts since last year. They put a plainclothes police team out specifically to target GPS thefts. They started sending the postcards. 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 it like a job.
Mr. RUSS HAMILL (Bethesda Police Commander): Just about every night, they would go out and hit 30 to 50 cars a night. And they were going to places where the cars were being left open. They're almost like water. They're taking the path of least resistance.
LEWIS: The tactics have brought Bethesda's theft number way down, for now at least.
GPS manufacturers could solve the theft problem easily by installing computer chips to track them — but of course, that would make them cost more. Unless that day comes, the best way to hang on to your Garmin or Tom Tom is to take it with you. And don't forget your iPod, or your laptop, or your satellite radio, or…
Libby Lewis, NPR News.
BLOCK: And for tips on how to hang on to your GPS, go to npr.org.