As you might have heard, car break-ins are an increasing problem in Seattle. Data from the Seattle Police Department shows a 44 percent increase in "motor vehicle theft" since last year, and Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat recently reported that over a two-week period this fall, there were "426 smash-and-grabs" in the city. (That is, people busting out a car window to take what's inside.) Westneat himself chronicled, in two recent columns, the smash-and-grab theft of a purse from of his own family's car—which was followed by his own family's hot pursuit of the thieves using a tracker feature on an iPhone that was in the purse, which was followed by his family's struggle to get Seattle police to do more than yawn.
"This year we've definitely seen an uptick in auto thefts throughout the city," said Seattle Police Department detective Drew Fowler, noting that detectives in auto theft and the Major Crimes Task Force (MCTF) have arrested several prolific thieves in recent months. "Our detectives are working really hard to catch the folks doing this," he said. "We've made some headway and we're going to keep at it."
While all that's going on, what's a person who doesn't have a twice-weekly column or a police badge supposed to do?
Seeking some help, I tracked down Flamingmoon Kamal Kime, a convicted felon who was sitting in a stolen Honda Pilot when MCTF detectives arrested him on July 8. Over e-mail from SeaTac Federal Detention Center, where he's now serving time, Kime said he was willing to speak to The Stranger because, after exiting the drug-induced fog he was in when he was arrested, he realized he wanted to do something positive for society. Like helping you avoid having your car broken into or stolen, especially during the holiday season.
"Keeping a clean car is the best thing you can possibly do," Kime said. "Don't leave things in the visual area that with a little effort could be kept in the trunk. And don't buy or own a Honda between the years of 1988 and 2004, or a Nissan, period!"
Detective Fowler said a single thief can easily steal 30 cars per month, and he appeared to back up some of Kime's advice. Seattle thieves' favorite takes, according to Detective Fowler, are the Honda Civic, the Honda Accord, and the Subaru Legacy. "I owned a 1992 Subaru Legacy when I was going through school," Detective Fowler said. "I could start it with every key on my key chain." And Honda held the top two spots on the 2013 National Insurance Crime Bureau "Hot Wheels" report, with 53,995 Accords and 45,001 Civics stolen nationwide. (The total number of cars stolen that year in the United States was just under 700,000.) It is also well known in criminal communities, Kime added, that a filed-down key—or a flathead screwdriver in a pinch—can be used to jiggle many pre-2001 cars into motion.
Brad Nelson, an assistant manager at Honda North America, seemed to get somewhat testy when asked why Hondas are so popular with thieves. "Honda vehicles, particularly the Accord and Civic, have also been among the top five best-selling cars in America for more than 25 years," said Nelson. "There are a lot of older Honda vehicles still on the road to be stolen, and owners of those vehicles create demand for parts to keep them going."
Even those who eschew car models that are popular with thieves aren't safe from window-smashing car prowlers, though. Kime said it only takes a $2 piece of equipment that can be found at any hardware store to efficiently shatter your back window. "A car alarm doesn't even always go off when you break a window," he said, "only when you open the door. So you can peel a car out without even setting off the alarm."
What makes a prowler home in on a certain car? Often, it's something the owner would never think to hide. A simple dangling white cord could signify an Apple device. A cradle attached to the dash could mean there's a radar detector in the glove box. A thief doesn't know the PS4 or iPhone box in the backseat is empty, or that the Jansport bag on the floor of the backseat is bursting with last week's dirty gym clothes.
"Jackets are a big thing," Kime said. "When someone sees a jacket, a suit jacket especially, or a nice fucking North Face, they're thinking there will be a wallet in it, and they'll risk breaking a window just to check."
Kime said he even knows someone who found $10,000 cash in a McDonald's Happy Meal bag inside an unlocked car full of garbage, so keeping a disgustingly messy car isn't a deterrent.
On a national level, nearly half the cars stolen are never seen again, with only 54.8 percent of reported stolen vehicles recovered in 2013. "A lot of the newer vehicles, when they're taken, you never see 'em again," said National Insurance Crime Bureau director of public affairs Frank Scafidi. "The old, old vehicles become parts for similar vehicles—the black market for parts is huge."
In Seattle, victims of car theft are better off, getting their cars back 86 percent of the time, according to the Seattle Police Department website. In fact, cars are often returned the same week they're stolen, Fowler said, especially when they're stolen by thieves looking to get somewhere quick (or quickly pilfer the contents) and then discard the vehicles.
An occasional vehicle may be dismantled and sold piece by piece on eBay or Craigslist, but both Kime and Fowler laughed at the notion of chop shops. "Not in Seattle," said Kime. "The cars just get driven around until they get too hot."
In 2010, the Seattle Police Department started the @getyourcarback Twitter account. But has tweeting the make, model, and license plate number of stolen cars as they are reported helped owners get their cars back? "It's hard to quantify," said Fowler. "But we do hope that by turning up the pressure, we can get more cars back to owners."
Scafidi suggests concerned car owners use common sense and the security that is built into every vehicle. Beyond that, there are aftermarket tools like the Club, kill switch, and LoJack that will deter or catch all but the most sophisticated thieves.
"If the garden-variety thief sees a Club, he'll maybe go to a different car," said Scafidi. Kime backed up this idea. He disagreed with the Seattle Police Department's advice to park in a well-lit place, however.
"Parking in a well-lit area will just make it easier to see everything in the car," Kime said. "When you exit your vehicle, take a quick look and think like a thief: What would I mistake for a potential valuable?" It's advice Danny Westneat could have used. In his Seattle Times column about his family's car window getting smashed for the purse inside, he noted that bad weather and a bad decision probably contributed to the crime, which happened at his son's soccer game. "It was pouring," Westneat wrote, "so we foolishly left a purse in the car."