A pewter Chevrolet Tahoe was parked in front of a home on Ada Street in late September in east Modesto. In seconds, the sport utility vehicle was gone.
The thief who stole the SUV didn't have to break the window to get inside. He didn't have to pry the door open or even use altered keys to get the vehicle started.
Modesto police said the SUV's owner had left the parked vehicle running as it warmed up on one of the first cold mornings this fall.
"It can happen in a matter of five to 10 seconds," said Modesto police Sgt. Aaron Tait, a member of the Stanislaus County Auto Theft Task Force. "You're just daring them to steal your vehicle."
Modesto police officials say they see an increase in the number of unattended vehicles stolen as the weather turns colder.
Drivers leave their vehicles running to warm up the interior or engine. Doing this, however, increases the chances for vehicle theft by opportunistic criminals looking for a quick ride.
"They'll steal it just to get from point A to point B," Tait said.
The countywide task force is dedicated to catching thieves in the act, recovering stolen vehicles and preventing thefts.
Tait said it's frustrating to hear some vehicles are stolen by thieves who don't have to overcome security devices or use tools to get cars, trucks and SUVs started.
"These (vehicle thefts) are 100 percent preventable," Tait said. "It's because of a lack of public awareness."
What some people might not know is that leaving an idling vehicle unattended could be a crime, said Sgt. Brian Findlen, a Modesto police spokesman.
The state vehicle code considers leaving a vehicle on a highway without turning off the engine an infraction punishable by a fine. Findlen said Modesto's municipal code considers it a misdemeanor to leave an idling vehicle in a public parking lot or on the street.
Aside from the threat of a fine, leaving vehicles unattended make them highly visible targets for thieves.
Idling vehicles are easy for thieves to spot because the exhaust is clearly visible in colder weather, Findlen said. The stolen SUV on Ada Street was targeted in this manner.
Investigators believe the suspect was a passenger in a pickup driving through the neighborhood. Findlen said the suspect got out of the pickup and got into the idling SUV before driving away.
"They're out there looking for vehicles to steal," Findlen said.
And these thefts don't happen in the middle of the night. Findlen said thieves catch residents off guard in the morning as they get ready to go to work.
That's why Modesto police, the task force and other law enforcement agencies in Stanislaus County are urging residents not to leave their vehicles unattended with the keys inside.
The public awareness campaign is the latest effort to reduce the number of vehicle thefts in the county. Law enforcement officials want to rid Stanislaus County of its title: vehicle theft capital of America.
In 2008, the county recorded 829 vehicles stolen per 100,000 people, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. For the second year in a row, and for the fifth time in six years, the county topped the list of areas with the highest vehicle theft rates in the country.
The county's vehicle theft rate, however, dropped about 20 percent last year and has declined by about 41 percent since 2005, according to Auto Theft Task Force.
And the decline has continued in Modesto this year, Findlen said. As of late September, Modesto has seen a 12 percent reduction in vehicle thefts from the same time last year.
He said law enforcement officials think the number of vehicle thefts will keep declining through the end of the year if residents take heed of their warnings to never leave idling vehicles unattended.
"We realize we still have more work to do," Findlen said. "Being number one is a distinction we would prefer to give to another region."
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2394.