Auto break-in epidemic hits South City 

Auto break-ins in South San Francisco have spiked more than 30 percent since last summer as crooks prey upon vacationers and business travelers carrying global positioning devices in their cars, police said.

So-called smash-and-grab robberies are on the rise across the nation as GPS devices have attracted high selling prices on online retail sites.

South San Francisco police Detective Ken Chetcuti said the devices have been fetching up to $400 on Web sites such as Craigslist and eBay. Almost half of South San Francisco’s 89 auto burglaries in the last three months have involved a GPS device, he said.

Many GPS thieves scour hotel strips and business parks to find vehicles, often rental cars, with the devices left in the dash area.

"They know they’re going to find what they’re looking for there, because people are unfamiliar with the area and use the GPS to get around," Chetcuti said.

Car break-ins are attractive to criminals because they’re easy to commit and tough for police to solve, police said. Unlike victims of auto theft who find their cars missing altogether, victims of auto break-ins typically discover their vehicles with the windows broken and their belongings missing.

On Thursday, police demonstrated just how quickly a smash-and-grab can happen.

In a knit cap and dark clothing, a man walked up to a car parked in the South San Francisco Police Department parking lot and shattered the driver’s-side window with a common tool. As glass rained onto the concrete, he unlocked the door and snatched the GPS device suctioned to the front window.

The crook — played by Officer John Stankewicz in the simulation — took only 30 seconds to grab the device and get away.

Officials at Allstate Insurance, which co-hosted the demonstration, said coverage doesn’t always extend to items lost in smash-and-grab thefts.

"Collision and liability insurance coverage will likely not cover theft of contents from a vehicle," said Allstate spokeswoman Patti Kelly.

Drivers with GPS devices in their car can easily avoid a break-in by simply not leaving the devices in the car, said South San Francisco police Sgt. Paul Ritter.

Ritter, who served on the San Mateo County Vehicle Theft Task Force for five years, said auto-related crimes rise across the county during summertime.

The typical auto burglar, he said, is a male in his teens to 30s.

Minimizing auto break-ins

» Lock doors, close windows

» Park in secure, well-lit area

» Conceal items of value

» Place large packages in trunk

» Avoid frequent car trips to stow purchases when shopping

» Be aware of surroundings

» Install warning devices

Source: South San Francisco Police Department, Allstate

tbarak@examiner.com

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