Along with shopping and mistletoe, the winter holiday season brings a less favorable trend that is causing Bay Area law enforcement to once again warn drivers who leave their cars warming up on frosty mornings that the vehicle may not be there when they return.
Warm-up thefts, or car thefts carried out while a car is left running with the keys in the ignition in front of a house or business, are common wintertime occurrences in parts of the Bay Area, and law enforcement officials are urging residents to avoid leaving their cars unattended.
Sgt. Aristotle Wolfe of the Sonoma County auto theft task force said that Tuesday morning two cars were stolen while left in front of homes to warm up. Nine cars were stolen in the same way during the last cold season
from October 2006 to February 2007, he said.
"Generally, people go out to warm their cars and leave them running and someone runs off with them," he said.
The crime is more common during the winter season, he said, because people do not want to sit in their cars and wait for them to warm and for the windows to defrost.
Wolfe said that about 20 percent of the cars stolen in Sonoma County are stolen while keys are either in the ignition or hidden somewhere inside.
Warm-up thefts in particular usually occur in residential neighborhoods, he said.
"I wouldn't do it anywhere. I wouldn't do it at all now that I do this job. I never leave the keys in the car. Not even in my driveway," he said.
Sgt. Bob O'Keefe from the Alameda County regional auto theft task force said that warm-up thefts are also common throughout Alameda County.
Auto thefts in general are not more prevalent during certain times of the year, he said, but the way that car thieves steal vehicles is different depending on the weather.
During the summer people leave windows cracked, so thieves can reach in and open the car door or grab items out of the vehicle, O'Keefe said. Winter thefts, on the other hand, tend to be warm-up related.
Santa Clara County residents may also have to get used to the cold morning ride, Sgt. Don Morrissey of the sheriff's office said.
"I definitely know that during the cold weather months there is a huge increase of vehicles stolen and it is due to warm ups," he said.
Most of the warm-up crimes in Santa Clara County tend to be in residential areas and sometimes thieves just want a warm ride, Morrissey said.
Cars being stolen with the keys in the ignition are not unusually common in San Mateo County but they do happen, said John Flahavan, special agent supervisor for the San Mateo County vehicle theft task force.
"We discourage citizens from (leaving their keys in the car) and we try to put word out for people not to do that because the opportunist will try to steal your car," Flahavan said.
Officials recommend that, aside from taking the keys out of the ignition, drivers make sure valet keys are not in the vehicle and that valuables are out of sight.
– Bay City News