Trying to warm up your commute could leave you vulnerable to theft

On bitterly cold winter mornings no one wants to get behind the wheel of a freezing cold automobile. So a Michiana tradition has been to run out the front door first thing, fire up the engine and go back inside where it is warmer and finishing getting ready.

But that practice has led to another Michiana tradition that police would like to see fade away: curbside departures.

Even though the highest number of automobile thefts occurs in the summer months, police say they do see a spike in curbside departures when the winter months roll around.

“The weather gets cold, nobody wants to drive to work in a cold car so a lot of people will go out and start it ahead of time, they leave it parked on the street, leave it unlocked; they'll go to the local convenience store to run in and grab a quick cup of coffee, or they just get done fueling up with gas and they start their car and go in to pay for it and, in just in those few minutes, is all it takes for somebody to come up hop in the car and take off with it,” says Lt. Patrick Hechlinski, a SBPD crime prevention specialist.

Hechlinski says if car owners insist on warming up their cars, they should get a second set of keys, lock their car and keep an eye on it. He recommends getting a remote starter because it renders running virtually theft proof.

When asked if he has seen a decrease in that type of crime because of such automatic starters, Hechlinski said no. For whatever reason, it seems that the cars that do not have automatic starters are the targets than those that do.

Hechlinski also says many of these thefts are committed by someone who was simply looking to avoid being cold.

“Every once in a while, you'll see in a report they only drove a few blocks and left the car; or they just drove a short distance across town and it seemed like all they wanted to do was get from point "a" to point "b" and rather than walking, it was a good idea to steal your car because you left it running and unlocked.”

While such cases where the car is usually found okay, officials are concerned about those situations that could turn deadly serious, like Jan. 25, 2012.

Surveillance video released by the St. Joseph County Prosecutor’s Office shows a red car pull up to the pump at a South Bend Speedway on Mishawaka Ave. The driver gets out of the car and leaves his engine running. While the driver is inside the Speedway, a shadowy figure appeared from nowhere, got inside the car and drove off in it.

The car’s owner not only left his car unlocked and vulnerable to theft, he also left a loaded 38 caliber handgun inside. The car was later recovered in Bremen and the suspect is now serving time for stealing it, but police say there are even worse scenarios.

“Sometimes you'll have parents that have a toddler in the back of that car. And instead of going through, because it's so cold they don't want to unstrap them and haul them inside with them and get them back outside and strap them back in. They think "well, I’m just going to run in for a minute, I’ll keep an eye on the car, I’m going to get my up of coffee or get a gallon of milk and come back out and everything is good. But if somebody hops in that car and takes off with that child in the back, you've got a pretty bad scenario. I would say that's my biggest fear,” says Hechlinski.

The bottom line is that it is usually never a good idea to leave a running car unattended. Officials note that it is better to be without a warmed car than be without any car at all.

Police warn that criminals may end up taking more than just a car, they can take garage door openers from inside and locate home addresses on the car’s registration. Then, with that information someone could possibly gain access to homes as well.

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