Protecting Valuables From Prying Eyes

By Dan Morse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 11, 2008

A widely held belief in Montgomery County is that anyone who drives into Washington and parks the car shouldn't leave valuables showing.

But statistics show that those traveling the other way should be just as concerned about what's visible in their cars.

Thieves stole items from automobiles 6,345 times in Montgomery last year, similar to the 6,383 incidents reported in the District, according to police in both jurisdictions. In Montgomery and the District, thieves snatched up Global Positioning System devices, satellite radios, iPods and all the other apparatuses that have migrated into cars over the past decade.

"We are a generation of people who like gadgets," said Diane Tillery, a Montgomery police officer, whose district in the Gaithersburg area has been hit particularly hard.

Many motorists invite trouble. In more than a fifth of thefts from cars, motorists did not lock their doors, Montgomery police officials said. In Bethesda, Capt. Russ Hamill estimated that unlocked cars account for 65 to 70 percent of cases.

He recounted how plainclothes officers on a recent stakeout watched teenagers walk down a street jiggling about a hundred car door handles, searching for those that were unlocked. The suspects stole items from a number of cars and were arrested, Hamill said.

Finding unlocked cars is so easy that three other suspects referred to the practice as "shopping," according to court records. Last month, thieves hit churchgoers' cars in Ashton during Sunday services.

Those who lock their doors often leave valuables in plain sight, stunning even seasoned officers.

"I was amazed at what I saw," said Sgt. Jennifer McNeal, also from the Gaithersburg area district. "Purses open with $20 bills hanging out. Lots of iPods. Lots of XM/Sirius radios. Lots of GPS's. A man's wallet."

Recent police reports also note the theft of a baby's car seat.

In a program aimed at educating the public, McNeal and other officers walk through parking lots with stacks of yellow postcards. If they see valuables in a vehicle, they note them on the cards and take down the car's license plate number. At the station, someone looks up the car owner's address and mails the card.

"In the future, please secure your personal property out of sight in the glove compartment, console or trunk," part of the card reads.

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