Vehicle thefts are rapidly rising and police say if motorists would simply lock the doors and keep valuables out of sight the numbers would come down.
The thefts have increased in southern Colorado by more than 50 percent since 2011 and Colorado Springs has the second highest number of stolen cars in the state, closely trailing Pueblo.
Colorado Springs police reported 1,995 stolen vehicles in 2012, a 57 percent increase from 2011. The upward trend appears to be continuing this year, with 1,227 auto thefts so far in 2013, crime analyst Molly Miles said.
On average, a victim of auto theft can expect to pay at least $6,500 to deal with all the complications that come from the crime - an epidemic that cost vehicle owners and insurance companies $68 million statewide in 2012, according to the Rocky Mountain Insurance Association.
As prevalent as motor vehicle thefts have become, law enforcement officials agree that the solution, in part, is pretty simple.
Coloradans Against Auto Theft, or CAAT, is a coalition of law enforcement, insurance and community partners across the state working to educate the public to combat auto theft. Themessage on billboards and bus stops throughout Colorado Springs are ominous and clear: Lock your car.
"Auto theft is truly a crime of opportunity," said Detective Joe Frabbiele, of the Colorado Springs Police Department's motor vehicle theft task force. "If they find a car is locked, windows rolled up, and valuables out of sight, they're going to move on to another car that's not protected."
The Colorado Crime Information Computer System reported 5,096 stolen vehicles in southern Colorado from 2012 to 2013, with 1,129 of those thefts originating in Colorado Springs. For unincorporated El Paso County, the numbers increased from 147 in 2011 to 204 in 2012, said Lt. Jeff Kramer, spokesman for the El Paso County Sheriff's Office. Through July 31 this year, 142 vehicles were reported stolen.
"We are on pace to surpass 2011's numbers, so it's a matter of waiting to see if the county will have more vehicle thefts than last year," Kramer said. "But a huge part of that is on the community, because people can really make a difference with their behavior."
According CAAT's web site, http://lockdownyourcar.org/ , more than half of stolen cars have the keys in them. That has proven alarmingly true in Colorado Springs recently, when a vehicle was stolen outside of a 7-Eleven store with a two-year-old child sleeping in the backseat. Police said the toddler's father and a female companion left the keys in the ignition and stepped inside to use an ATM, as surveillance footage showed someone driving the car away within minutes.
"Fortunately, that child was returned safely to her mother, but that vehicle theft could have escalated to a kidnapping situation very quickly," said Barbara Miller, police spokeswoman. "People have to remember to lock their cars, to keep valuables out of sight or remove them completely."
One of the leading agencies partnered with CAAT is the Auto Theft Intelligence Center at the Colorado Bureau of Investigation in Lakewood , west of Denver.
Colorado State Patrol Sgt. Rich Smith , along with a team that includes a crime analyst, troopers and detectives, has spearheaded a statewide effort to streamline the process through which a stolen car is reported and that information shared amongst agencies.
In operation since July 17, 2012, the center built a massive database that agencies can access through the state crime data base, using a format that includes key information to help agencies solve stolen car cases and connect the vehicles to other crimes.
"From the moment a car is reported stolen, to where it's spotted, to where it's recovered and in what condition, it's all there," Smith said. "What we've discovered in recent years is that auto theft is not only a crime of opportunity, but also a tool for committing other crimes, such as narcotics trade, burglaries and even homicides."
The center has discovered patterns, such as the fact that auto thefts often cross jurisdictions.
"So far this year, of 456 cars reported stolen out of southern Colorado, 160 were recovered in other jurisdictions in the same region," criminal intelligence analyst Robert Force said. "Further north, 22 were recovered in Denver. We see that so many of these auto thefts are committed to enable other crimes, and the cars get dumped after."
Cross-jurisdiction auto thefts are common in Colorado Springs, as Frabbiele has observed.
"We've seen small networks of people who will steal cars here and then Pueblo police or other agencies will recover them," he said. "The thieves break into cars to gain property to sell on the street, to feed a drug habit. When they come across a car with keys they will take advantage of that and steal the vehicle."
Criminals often find identifying information inside vehicles that enables them to commit more crimes, such as home burglaries and identity theft.
"They check the center consoles and glove compartments, find garage door openers, registrations and proof of insurance, it takes them a moment to find out where the car owner lives, and burglarize residences," Frabbiele said. "Some people even keep checkbooks in their cars, and that turns into identity theft. It's a crime that balloons out of proportion, like a domino effect."