If you live in Prince George's County and drive a minivan, listen up. Your car is fast becoming a prime target for thieves.
County police say that in 1998, the Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager were higher on the list of cars stolen in Prince George's than the popular Nissan Maxima and Acura Legend, the cars stolen most often nationally.
The minivans remain popular this year, though the data for the first half of the year show that their popularity among car thieves may be slipping. But the year isn't over, and police caution that minivan owners should remain alert.
It's not just Caravans and Voyagers that the thieves like. Police say any minivan is a target these days, in part because its size makes it easier to transport large groups and because its popularity has spawned a demand for parts.
The Honda Accord was still the most stolen vehicle in the county last year, said Lt. Alan Lee, commander of the county police's crime analysis unit. But at second and third on the 1998 list, the Caravan and the Voyager moved up over the previous year, Lee said.
"It's something that minivan drivers definitely need to be aware of," Lee said. "It's a pretty popular car."
In 1998, 414 Caravans and 303 Voyagers were stolen in the county, police said.
This year, from Jan. 1 to July 1, 132 Caravans and 90 Voyagers were stolen.
In Washington, police say that at least three minivans are stolen every day.
As it was in Prince George's, the Accord was the most stolen car in the country in 1998. Nationally, the Caravan ranked No. 9.
In the Washington metropolitan area, the Caravan and Voyager were third and fifth, behind the Accord and Camry, and ahead of the Jeep Cherokee, Toyota Corolla and Acura Legend.
Barry Craig, of Bowie, is painfully aware of the minivan's popularity among thieves.
On Oct. 1, Craig went to retrieve his car from the parking lot at Landover Mall and discovered his hunter green Voyager was gone.
"At first I shocked. Then I went into denial," Craig said. "I thought I had parked it somewhere else and forgot about it. I never thought anyone would take my minivan."
Craig's minivan was recovered. It's now in the shop undergoing $900 worth of repairs.
Rhonda Mitchell, of Glendale, said she also was surprised to hear of the minivan's new claim to fame.
"I'm shocked," Mitchell said as her 3-year-old daughter peered through the van's window during a recent trip to Safeway. "It makes sense, though."
The rest of the country may catch up with Prince George's. Law enforcement and insurance investigators believe that thieves will become more interested in ripping off the so-called family or "soccer mom's" car.
According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, an Illinois-based group that has put out a most frequently stolen car list since 1993, this is the first year that a minivan has broken into the top 10.
And thieves, like anybody else, like a smooth ride. Many minivans provide this in the form of leather seats, other amenities such as televisions, VCRs, dual-control heating and cooling systems and even high-tech navigation systems to help lost drivers find their way.
Police say the stolen minivan trend is especially disturbing in Prince George's and the District, where thieves are using the vehicles for criminal activities as well as joy rides.
"That's what gets me about these stolen cars," said Sgt. Steven O'Dell, supervisor of the D.C. police department's auto squad. "We should think of a stolen vehicle not just as a property crime, because stealing a car enables criminals and that puts the whole community at risk."
Sgt. Russell San Felice, supervisor of the Prince George's police department's auto theft unit, said that as with any car, minivan owners should invest in anti-crime equipment to protect their cars.
"My biggest piece of advice is to use some sort of locking device or alarm," San Felice said. "Anything is better than nothing."
"Nowadays, minivan drivers need to think like they're driving a Porsche or a Mercedes," said Michael Erwin, spokesman for the New York-based Insurance Information Institute.
That's scary for drivers like Laurie Haggerty, of Landover. Several years ago, she said, her family's station wagon was stolen but recovered. The second family car is a minivan.
"We've got a Club [steering wheel lock] for both of them," she said.
Most Frequently Stolen Cars in County
From Jan. 1 to July 1 in Prince George's, 3,436 cars were reported stolen, according to police. The following is a list of the most frequently stolen cars.
1. Honda Accord--263
2. Toyota Camry--161
3. Dodge Caravan and Grand Caravan--132
4. Jeep Cherokee--129
5. Plymouth Voyager and Grand Voyager--90
6. Nissan Maxima--87
7. Dodge Neon--79
8. Chevrolet Caprice--75
9. Oldsmobile Cutlass--54
10. Plymouth Neon--52
In 1998, 3,978 cars were reported stolen in Prince George's. The following were the most stolen cars that year.
1. Honda Accord--645
2. Dodge Caravan and Grand Caravan--414
3. Plymouth Voyager--303
4. Oldsmobile Cutlass--290
5. Jeep Cherokee--200
6. Toyota Camry--200
7. Nissan Maxima--194
8. Chevrolet Caprice--193
9. Acura Legend--172
10. Honda Civic--143