Auto theft is the largest property crime in America, costing more than $1.5 billion annually, according to official statistics. Police say that joyriding juveniles are responsible for most auto thefts.

While police departments traditionally pay minimal attention to this crime, preferring to concentrate on violent crime or traffic tickets that yield revenue, the statistics on auto theft are stunning.

More than a million vehicles were stolen in 1976, roughly one of every 140 registered vehicles in the nation, according to Clarence O. Brickey, a sergeant with the Maryland State Police and president of the international Association of Auto Investigators.

A car is stolen every 32 seconds in the U.S., and auto theft represents approximately one-ninth of all crime committed in the country. Only 15 per cent of the thefts end in the arrest of the offender, and 74 per cent of those arrested are under age 21.

The average theft is about $5,000, Brickey said. Nationally, about 79 per cent of the stolen cars are eventually recovered, and the other 21 per cent is assumed to represent the work of professional thieves.

The Washington metropolitan area had 16.616 auto thefts in 1974, making it the 14th worst in the nation with 547 thefts per 100,000 population, Brickey said.

He said Prince George's is the worst county in Maryland for auto thefts because of the "easy pickings, apartments, congested parking lots."

"A lot of police departments don't understand auto theft, its value, its importance," said Brickey. "Nobody really wants to emphasize it too much."

Charles Poole, a state police investigator in Prince George's, said he thinks auto manufacturers are less than enthusiastic about providing antitheft equipment because it pushes up cost of cars and also because thefts mean more car sales.

Brickey said most insurance companies are not excited about auto thefts - perhaps because the cost are simply figured into their rate structures and passed to consumers.

The last major antitheft improvement by manufactures was steering column locks which came in during the late 1960s, Poole said.

Even so, Brickey said, "There's around 21 ways to defeat that system. . . . The systems can be defeated in from 10 seconds to two minutes. . . . Nothing will stop a professional thief."

Joyriding juveniles, who are responsible for most auto thefts, usually damage or wreck the vehicles they steal, Bricker said.

Stolen vehicles are also widely used in crimes. Nearly half of bank robberies involve stolen cars, he said.

Commercial or professional thefts for profit focuses on expensive, late-model cars taken mostly from residential areas late at night."The problem is that (professional) thieves are getting more clever today at stealing and altering vehicles," said Brickley. "Sometimes juveniles are paid by a professional as a hitman to pop a car . . . Usually you don't find out who the top man is."

Poole said juveniles used in this way will sometimes specialize in stealing one make or model of car.

The new trend among professional thieves, said Brickley, is to sell expensive parts of the cars and then shred the remainder as scrap. "It used to be they sold the whole unit," he said, "but police are more professional now in detecting altered cars."

The parts market has increased, he said, because people are holding on to cars longer as prices rise.

Auto wreckers and junkyards are often linked with professional car thieves, Brickley said. "Auto wreckers will tell you, 'I don't have the part now but I can get it for you in a couple of days,'" he said. "That means they'll get it at the midnight auto shop (steal it)."

Obtaining titles is another problem for professional car thieves. They can sometimes obtain the title of a wrecked car and alter it, or write for an out-of-state title that doesn't require personal appearance and then retitle the vehicle locally.

Blank titles are often stolen from state motor vehicle offices and filled in, Brickley said.

Such cases are investigative nightmares because of difficulties in tracking down the complex paperwork.

Although auto theft has traditionally been considered an urban problem, Brickley said, it has now became a rural problem as well - perhaps because in rural areas people tend to leave homes and cars unlocked which offer easy targets.