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Long IslandCrime

Vehicle thefts up 34% in Suffolk, 22% in Nassau, according to AAA statistics

AAA said some auto thieves have learned how to start cars by capturing signals from nearby key fobs. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Vehicle thefts have jumped on Long Island and elsewhere this year, a trend police officials and experts attribute to the coronavirus pandemic and to cars being left unlocked with keys inside.

According to statistics complied by AAA, the Suffolk County Police Dept. reported 786 vehicles stolen this year through September, a 34% increase from the same period in 2019. Nassau County police reported 433 vehicles stolen through September, a 22% increase.

New York City also has seen an uptick, as have other communities across the country, reversing years of declining car thefts nationwide, officials said.

"It's certainly not something that I would've immediately expected as a result of the pandemic," Stuart Cameron, chief of department for Suffolk police, said of the trend.

Each Suffolk police precinct saw car thefts rise, according to the AAA data. The greatest leap was in the Sixth Precinct in the Town of Brookhaven, where the number of vehicles stolen jumped 78%, from 73 to 130 cars.

Cameron said there was no clear pattern to the crimes. But he noted ways the pandemic seemed to be driving the trend. More food delivery vehicles than usual have been among those stolen, he said, a possible byproduct of an increase in takeout ordering because of pandemic restrictions on dining in at restaurants. He also noted that with more people working from home, cars are sitting immobile longer, making them potentially easier targets.

The jump in car thefts in Nassau has been concentrated in fewer areas, which have seen greater percent increases. In the Second Precinct, which includes Hicksville, Woodbury and neighboring communities, vehicle thefts more than doubled through September compared with the same period last year, from 21 to 43.

"Wherever you find high-end cars, those are the locations that they're committing the larcenies," said Nassau Police Det. Lt. Rich LeBrun.

LeBrun said around 98% of the vehicle thefts in the county this year involved cars left unlocked with key fobs inside.

LeBrun said detectives have recovered around 170 stolen cars this year. Cameron could not immediately say the number of stolen vehicles recovered in Suffolk this year, but added many ultimately were found.

In New York City, car thefts were up 66% through Nov. 22, according to AAA. In Manhattan, the increase was 98%.

AAA spokesman Robert Sinclair Jr. said the economic downturn that has followed the pandemic also might be driving the trend, as more people out of work may be turning to crime to make money. He also said some thieves have learned how to start cars by capturing signals from nearby key fobs.

Michael Cherbonneau, a criminology professor at the University of North Florida who has studied vehicle theft, said a drop in traffic stops amid the pandemic and recent nationwide activism over policing also might be driving the trend. If such stops are happening less often, car thieves may think their risk of getting caught is lower, he said.

Preliminary data collected by the Institute for Traffic Safety Management and Research in Albany shows 52% fewer motorists in Nassau and 41% fewer in Suffolk received traffic tickets in the first half of 2020 compared to the first half of 2019.

Cameron noted, however, that there also were fewer people on the road in the early months of the pandemic, making it easier for police vehicles equipped with license plate readers to spot stolen cars.

To prevent car thefts, police officials and AAA urged Long Islanders to lock their cars and store their key fobs a safe distance away from them.

Protecting your vehicle

AAA offers motorists tips on how to protect their vehicles from theft:

  • Lock your car; take your keys.
  • Store key fobs a safe distance away from the vehicle. Put the fob in a metal box, or in one of those E-ZPass bags, to prevent the transponder signal from being picked up.
  • Consider investing in a security camera for outside your residence that you can access through your cellphone.

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