Dec. 6, 2010 at 2:44 PM ET
One thing I knew moving to Seattle from Baltimore: my odds of getting mugged, shot or killed would go down dramatically, while the chances of my car being stolen would rise.
Seattle has a high rate of car theft: 10 a day! While my car has so far been safe — knock on wood — I do know people whose cars have been taken. (Once outside my building, while we were having dinner!)
With this in mind, the Seattle Police Department has launched an initiative using Twitter to put the word out on stolen vehicles, and to encourage followers to be their eyes on the streets to report back when they see a car on the list. Using @getyourcarback, SPD tweets the car model, year, color and license plate.
"We reserved (the Twitter name) 'getyourcarback' based on the idea that so many people these days are social networking and it's really a useful tool to get information out to a broad audience," said SPD spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb. He says there has been a 17 percent increase in auto thefts in the year ending Oct. 31 over the previous year. This year's total so far of stolen vehicles: 3011, vs. last year's 2574 at this same time.
Seattle used to be in the top 10 car theft cities, but Whitcomb says they've worked hard to bring those numbers down. Another Washington city, Yakima, is in the top 10, at No. 6, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which tallied the 2009 stats. (California cities dominate the list with six spots, while Laredo, Texas comes in first.)
He said SPD's message to thieves is this: "Not only is this information out to all law enforcement, but Twitter followers too. That ride you just stole is going to be much hotter previous to this being launched."
While many police departments are starting to engage in social media, the Greater Manchester police department in the UK tweeted every incident it handled over a 24-hour period in October, to make a point about workload.
There are almost 700 followers to @getyourcarback, which began its tweets Dec. 1. Since then, 33 tweets have gone out from the police. Whitcomb is not aware of any tips that have led to recovered vehicles, but encourages folks not to go vigilante and try to make contact with the would-be thieves.
"We don't want people to put themselves in roles of police officers," he said. "When a car is spotted by someone, we want them to call 911. We don't want them to make any contact with the driver. We want the 911 operators to really be the clearinghouse on whether or not a police response is needed. People should assume that it's stolen and let the police handle it."
Prevention, of course, is a big part of this initiative, which hopes to train people to make their prized wheels less of a target. Tips include some seemingly obvious points: do not leave keys in the ignition, do not leave spare keys in the car, don't leave valuables inside that can make it more of a target, etc.
While SPD doesn't encourage people "to drive and social network at the same time," Whitcomb said there are enough people who carpool, walk and use public transportation who can act quickly on the tweeted info.