Don’t Leave Keys, Valuables in Your Car

Don’t Leave Keys, Valuables in Your Car

Auto Crimes detective discusses vehicle thefts.

   Det. Jen Habig tells the Sully CAC about auto crimes.
 By Bonnie Hobbs 

With auto crimes a continual problem in Fairfax County, Police Chief Kevin Davis established the Auto Crimes Enforcement (ACE) unit in March 2022. And in its first year, its officers charged more than 175 people with felonies and seized 20 guns.

The unit has six detectives and two supervisors who investigate vehicle thefts, track these cars and apprehend the thieves. And Det. Jen Habig recently told the Sully District Police Station’s Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) what they’re facing and how they’re responding.

“Last year, more than $26 million worth of cars were stolen in this county from people, businesses and car dealerships,” she said. “Of the 1,183 vehicles stolen, we recovered 919.” And often, these thefts are crimes of opportunity – made easier by the vehicles’ owners.

“We see people leaving their keys in their cars, with the motor running, and going into Starbucks, 7-Eleven,” said Habig. “Thieves are looking for that; all they’re waiting for is that split second. You jump out and your car’s gone.” It happens with remote-start cars, as well. “And when people leave the push-to-start keys in their cars, it’s a lot easier for thieves to steal them,” said the detective.

Another problem is the theft of catalytic converters sold to scrap-metal dealers. “Depending on the car, they go for $800-$2,000 in cash, just for one,” said Habig. “They’re quick to steal in less than 3 minutes. Priuses and electric cars are targeted because they have more platinum in their metals and are worth more. Also, large vehicles like F-150 trucks because the catalytic converter is bigger, so they can get more money for it.”

But when the VIN (vehicle identification number) is etched onto the catalytic converter, it helps tie it to its vehicle. That way, when a scrap-metal dealer runs that number, it’ll come back as stolen.

As for the weapons seized from stolen vehicles, some are ghost guns. “Roughly a quarter of the guns we see on the streets are ghost guns,” said Habig. “They have plastic handles and no serial numbers, so they’re not trackable – there’s no record of them. Usually, they’re 3D-printed. We see them mostly in the hands of juveniles because they know they can’t legitimately get a firearm in Virginia – and then a lot of these guns come back stolen.”

Another thing the ACE unit is seeing is a rash of temporary, fraudulent, license tags. “They’re all over the place, and it’s been a huge problem since COVID because of the DMV closing down and then doing appointments and making it hard for people to register their cars,” explained Habig. “It gave criminals an easy excuse to start printing fraudulent tags, and it’s a good way to hide a stolen car. 

“You slap a temporary tag on it, it doesn’t come back when the police run it [through their national data system] and it doesn’t stand out. It looks like just another car. So that’s something we look for when we’re out driving around to make sure that temporary tag comes back in the computer system and is on the car it’s supposed to be on. That’s because a lot of people will steal them and put them on another car – hoping that nobody notices.”

The detective said criminals will also place a brand-new VIN number on cars. “It’s like money laundering for a vehicle,” she said. “For example, they stole a bunch of BMWs from a dealership in Mount Vernon. And we found one driving around because the license plate didn’t match the car and came back blank in the computer. When we stopped it, the VIN in the window didn’t come back, either – it didn’t exist. We had to dig underneath the car to find the legitimate VIN.”

People owning push-to-start vehicles should also be aware that, with the right equipment, their keys may be cloned. “Thieves get a blank key fob and buy the equipment that dealerships use to program your key if you lost it,” said Habig. “And just like that, they have the key to your car – and you still have your keys.”

Fraud and identity theft are happening at car dealerships, too. “People will come in with IDs that have been faked or changed just enough that they’re able to pass a credit check,” said Habig. “They have fake, credit-report numbers and they’ll buy high-end cars like Chargers, Audis and Jaguars from these dealerships.” 

“They’ll finance them, and then – when it’s time to make those payments – that person doesn’t exist and there’s nobody to go after,” she continued. “So the bank’s got the money, the dealership’s out the car and they can’t turn it into a legitimate profit. And that person is driving around in a stolen car.”

Another scam involves fake-key swaps. “When people go for test drives, they’ll take a blank key, do some sleight-of-hand, put the car’s real key in their pocket and hand back the blank one to the dealer,” said Habig. “Then they’ll come back later that night and steal the car.”

Regarding cars stolen outside people’s homes, she said most thefts occur between 5-9 p.m., but some people looking to steal cars will come here in the early morning hours and pull on the door handles to find unlocked vehicles they can steal. Or they’ll see the push-to-start keys left in the cup holder. 

“They’ll jump in, and they’re gone,” said Habig. “Then they’ll use [some of] these cars in robberies, shootings and homicides. So if we can stop it before they can use it, that’s the ideal.”

She said the county’s use of Flock cameras to scan license plates has been helpful in retrieving stolen vehicles. “They alert us to stolen vehicles, missing adults and juveniles, and serial-larceny suspects – any type of crime tied to a car,” said Habig. “And that alert will notify us where that car is; we’ve gotten lots of apprehensions that way.”

The most important things residents should do to help both themselves and the police, she said, is to lock their car doors and take their keys with them. “In 45 percent of the cars that get stolen, the keys were left in the car,” said Habig. “Or they’re hop-ins for Door Dash drivers, customers running inside a restaurant to grab pizzas or whatever. It’s a pain but, unfortunately, the world is the way it is. And don’t leave valuables in the car in plain sight.”

Cameras in driveways and outside homes are also helpful in providing police with clues to a criminal’s identity. “We can see what these guys look like, what kind of cars they’re driving and how they’re coming in and out [of a street],” said Habig.

“Tracking services in cars also help, as do GPS trackers in older models. And an air tag hidden in the car will allow your phone to know the last place it pinged – which gives us something to go on.”

She then told the residents, “You know your neighborhood – what’s normal, what’s not. If something pops up, call us. Report suspicious behavior, but don’t engage these guys. Your car’s not worth your safety.”