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Car theft is common but preventable, police say

It's like getting the wind knocked out of you, or being punched in the stomach.

Having a car stolen is a helpless feeling, but in many cases it's preventable.

So says Detective John Fister of the Merced Police Department. For about 10 years now he's been investigating car thefts and other property crimes. While he's not likely to become the Maytag Man if everybody were to be more careful about their vehicles, life would be a little simpler.

"There are people out there looking to steal your car or the stuff in it," Fister said. "If they see $4 in change, they'll bust a $30 window."

Bottom line: Don't leave a car running in early-morning hours to warm it up or clear the frost off the windshield. Odds are good the car will be stolen, Fister said. With 30 to 40 percent of the cars stolen, owners made it easy for the thieves by leaving keys in the ignition or the vehicle running.

He estimates 97 to 98 percent of stolen cars are recovered. Some are intact, but others may be stripped, burned, run off a mountaintop or found in the Delta Mendota Canal when the water level goes down.

"It only takes seconds to jump in a car and take off," Fister said. "Don't leave your keys in the ignition, center console or anywhere. Anymore, you can't leave your doors open or a bike in the front yard -- which is sad."

Detective Dave Alcaraz said anything visible inside a car could be taken by a thief. In 2004, statistics show a car was stolen every 26 seconds in the United States.

Lately, police are getting more reports of thieves stealing purses, laptops, iPods and cell phones from cars. Fister and others consider these "crimes of opportunity" where thieves walk around parking lots and apartment complexes trying car door handles, looking for keys in the ignition and valuables.

Sgt. Tony Aponte said almost every day police officers take reports of stolen cars in Merced. Some gang members use stolen cars to commit other crimes. If officers observe a stolen car on the road, it becomes a felony stop, and the vehicle's occupants are taken out at gunpoint, since it's possible they may be armed.

"We always treat it (auto theft) seriously," Aponte said. "These are crimes of opportunity when people leave the keys in a car."

Last year, 455 cars and trucks were stolen in the city of Merced compared with 446 in 2006, a 2 percent increase. In 2005, Modesto was the top-ranked city in the nation for auto thefts, with Stockton ranked third and Fresno ninth.

Fister said the public are the police officer's eyes and ears. If they see suspicious-looking people looking in vehicles who don't belong in the area, they should call police right away.

In 2004, the National Insurance Crime Bureau said the top stolen vehicles were the 1995 Honda Civic, 1989 Toyota Camry, 1991 Honda Accord, 1994 Dodge Caravan, 1994 Chevrolet pickup and 1997 Ford pickup. In some cases it's because the vehicle is easy to steal; in other cases it's because the parts are valuable on the black market.

Fister said in many cases people will steal a car just to get from Point A to Point B, keeping it anywhere from one to five days. In winter months, 10 to 15 cars are stolen a month, compared with 20-35 a month when the weather is warmer.

"The stuff in your car doesn't have to be valuable -- just wanted by some criminal," Fister said.

Associate Editor Doane Yawger can be reached at 209 385-2485 or