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Number of Stolen Vehicles Rises in Coronavirus Crisis

2020-5-30

The coronavirus health crisis has not been kind to car owners in the United States.

With many Americans staying at home, their cars are left unattended on the streets. These vehicles then become easy targets for thieves.

Vehicle property thefts jumped 63 percent in New York, and nearly 17 percent in Los Angeles, from January 1 through the middle of May 2020. Those increases are in comparison to the same period last year.

Across the country, many law enforcement agencies are reporting an increase in stolen cars and vehicle burglaries, even as violent crime has dropped.

Police use the term vehicle burglary when talking about when someone breaks into a car to steal objects from it.

Car thefts and vehicle burglaries are low-risk crimes with a possible high reward, police say, especially when many drivers leave car doors unlocked or their keys inside.

“You might as well put a sticker on the window that says, ‘come take my stuff,’” said Alex Villanueva, the Los Angeles County sheriff.

In this Thursday, May 21, 2020, photo vehicles are parked in Los Angeles. The coronavirus hasn't been kind to car owners. With more people than ever staying home to lessen the spread of COVID-19, their sedans, pickup trucks and SUVs are parked unattended on the streets, making them easy targets for opportunistic thieves. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
In this Thursday, May 21, 2020, photo vehicles are parked in Los Angeles. The coronavirus hasn't been kind to car owners. With more people than ever staying home to lessen the spread of COVID-19, their sedans, pickup trucks and SUVs are parked unattended on the streets, making them easy targets for opportunistic thieves. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

In Austin, Texas last month, police found that 72 percent of stolen vehicles had their keys nearby. Austin's total number of auto thefts last month rose about 50 percent and burglaries to vehicles were up two percent from April 2019.

The public health crisis has created a “perfect storm,” said Austin police Sargeant Chris Vetrano. Vetrano leads the auto theft force that investigates stolen vehicle cases.

There are reasons for that storm. Drivers are at home and not using their cars very often. Schools are closed, and some young people are doing bad things. Criminals are out of work and have more free time or need money to buy drugs or other things.

Vetrano told The Associated Press that the internet has, in some ways, made things easy for criminals.

“You can get on the internet nowadays and learn how to break into vehicles just searching YouTube,” he said.

About a year ago, someone broke into Vetrano’s Ford F-150 truck, one of the vehicles most commonly stolen in the United States.

Police Detective Greg Wilking of Salt Lake City, Utah, said a 22 percent increase in vehicle burglaries could be from a few criminals working quickly.

“It’s really 10 seconds,” he said. “They’re not spending a lot of time in your car. It’s a smash-and-grab-and-go,” sometimes during the day.

Wilking worries the numbers will keep rising because “people get more desperate as time goes on.”

However, in some areas, the coronavirus crisis has helped reduce crime.

In Baltimore, Maryland, thefts from cars fell 24 percent, and stolen vehicles dropped 19 percent, from January to May. The decrease is in comparison to numbers from the same period last year.

Colonel Richard Worley, the chief of patrol, gives some of the credit to aggressive efforts to warn car owners to lock their vehicles and take their keys home. Owners also have been told to leave their cars in well-lit areas.

In addition, more people are staying home and keeping an eye on the streets. Because calls for service and violent crime have decreased, police officers now have time for patrolling neighborhoods.

It is easy to forget simple things – even for people who know better. Lindsey Eldridge, of the police department’s community outreach office, left her keys in her car. She realized her mistake just before falling asleep.

As Worley said: “She could have been a statistic.”

I'm John Russell.

Stefanie Dazio reported on this story for The Associated Press. John Russell adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

reward – n. a prize given in recognition of one’s effort or service

unlocked – adj. related to something that is undone or open

key – n. an instrument that is used to start up an automobile

sticker – n. something that sticks to a person or an object; a notice

sheriff – n. an elected officer who is responsible for keeping the peace

smash – v. to break (something) into many pieces; to shatter or destroy (something)

grab – v. to quickly take and hold (someone or something) with your hand or arms

desperate – adj. feeling or showing a sense of hopelessness

patrol n. a person sent to keep watch over an area

statistic – n. a fact or piece of information from a large study