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Boulder County law enforcement agencies see increase in vehicle thefts since onset of coronavirus pandemic

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During the coronavirus pandemic, people have looked for effortless ways to snatch vehicles and have found them. Now police are preparing for another spike in thefts as temperatures dip and residents start their cars and leave them unattended in attempt to warm them up before their morning commute.

“We call them ‘puffers,’” said Sgt. Brannon Winn, with the Boulder Police Department. “Everyone comes out in the morning, and they start their cars and leave them running. We know that’s a problem because thieves are out in the morning looking for them.”

From January 2021 to October 2021, vehicle thefts in Boulder have increased by 13%, Winn said.

“There is an overall increase in crime in general,” Winn said. “We know that these vehicles are being stolen and are being used in other crimes.”

Two commonly stolen vehicles are pickup trucks and older Hondas.

“Pickup trucks and Hondas tend to be at the top of our list,” Winn said. “We know these vehicles are being used in other crimes. It’s much easier to use a truck where you can throw stuff into the back. Hondas are easier to steal because the ignitions are easier to tamper with.”

Commander Jason Oehlkers, with the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office, said there are a few theories as to why vehicle thefts have increased in the past two years.

One hypothesis is that people may be struggling to make ends meet financially, which has led them to steal vehicles. Another thought is that people who commit these crimes are involved in drug use.

“It seems that typically these vehicles are used in commission of other crimes like breaking into other vehicles or breaking into garages and stealing property,” Oehlkers said.

From 2019 to 2020, vehicle thefts increased by 34% in Longmont. This increase is fairly consistent with statewide data, said Detective Cassidy Jones, with the Longmont Public Safety Department.

Vehicle thefts in Colorado rose by 65% from July 2019 to July 2021, according to the Colorado Auto Theft Prevention Authority.

“More often than not (people) are joyriding in them and using them for the commission of other crimes as opposed to selling it or transporting it out of the country or state,” Jones said. “They are just using it to drive around or in commission of other crimes more locally.”

Protecting yourself from vehicle theft is straightforward, Jones said.

“We are trying to convey to people that they (should not) leave their keys in their vehicles and not leave them unattended,” she said. “Just making sure people are taking steps to not make themselves an easy target is something that is pretty key.”

Longmont police receive a significant amount of vehicle theft reports overnight or when people wake up and realize their cars are no longer there, Jones said.

Her advice to residents is to park in an area that has a lot of lighting or in a garage if available and not to stay parked in one area for too long.

Jones said there have been issues with people who purchased vehicles online or from social media. Buyers later learn the vehicle they bought was stolen, Jones said. Before buying a used car from a private person, she recommends buyers check out the website lockdownyourcar.org/prevention/ for tips on how to spot a stolen vehicle.

“I think in these times it’s really important that people try to protect themselves,” she said.

People who commit these crimes do not spend much time looking for vehicles to steal, Winn said. They are looking for something quick and effortless. He said some of the simplest tools such as locking a vehicle and not leaving it unattended while it’s on can prevent the crime altogether.

“I think in general the first thing thieves are looking for is ease of access and convenience,” he said. “Most of these auto thefts are targets of opportunity. People are not spending a lot of time chasing vehicles. They are looking for easier targets.”

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