July 25, 2006 at 6:00 AM ET
Perhaps you can learn from my mistake. Recently, I parked my car in Washington, D.C., and made sure to stash my trusty (and pricey) GPS device in a hidden place. I did not, however, stash the plastic dashboard mount, which sat there through the night shining like a beacon for any would-be gadget thief. When I returned to my car the next morning, I had a front seat full of shattered glass. Both my GPS and my car mount were gone.
I may have been foolish. But I'm not alone.
By many accounts, gadget theft from cars is on the rise. In fact, the most recent FBI statistics indicate that while the rate of auto thefts around the country has remained flat in recent years, gadget thefts from vehicles rose about 30 percent from 2000 to 2004. And why not? Our cars have become rolling offices. My cigarette lighter now rivals the back of my stereo in its spaghetti-like appearance. By my recent count, I have in my car on a typical day better than 10 gadgets clogging up my cup holders:
*A cell phone, with car charger.
*A satellite radio, its antenna, and its power adapter.
*My iPod, its car charger and its FM modulator.
*A power inverter, in case I need to use my laptop or recharge my digital camera.
*And, once upon a time, I had a GPS device and its mount.
When you consider that I have about $2,000 worth of music on my iPod, a car gadget thief could strike gold by rummaging through my seats. And given all those wires, it's pretty easy for any casual window shopper to see that my car doubles as an electronics store for criminals.
Gadget thieves do just this kind of shopping, says Fred Corrubia, chief of police in Paramus, N.J. Situated just outside New York City, Paramus is home to one of America's densest collections of shopping malls. And earlier this year, the city was hit by a rash of GPS thefts at mall parking lots -- 43 units stolen during three weeks in January alone. The problem became so severe that Corrubia set up a GPS theft task force and engineered a sting to catch gadget thieves.
"It's a crime of convenience," Corrubia says. "It takes nothing to remove them. ... We were getting killed by this."
In many cases, the chief says, gadget criminals don't even have to break car windows. On a recent parking lot tour, he found a half-dozen car doors left unlocked, with gadgets sitting in plain view.
"We saw a car with two booster seats in the back, doors unlocked," he says. "Obviously that woman had something else on her mind."
Corrubia caught an alleged crook in his sting. The suspect told Paramus investigators that he was getting about $100 apiece for stolen GPS units. Most of them end up in discount electronics stores in Manhattan 10 miles to the east, where they are often sold as new, he said. Sophisticated criminals get their hands on contraband packaging and manuals, twin them with stolen gadgets, and sell them for 50 percent off the new price. A tidy profit for both thief and fence.
The Paramus suspect told police he had little trouble stealing four or five units in an hour of parking lot prowling.
"He said, 'This is what I do for a living,' " Corrubia says.
Tech to the rescue?
The GPS industry is reacting to the problem.
Garmin, manufacturer of several popular GPS units, recently introduced a piece of software called Garmin Lock that prevents criminals from using the devices after they are stolen. Consumers must enter a four-digit code before using the device; those who forget their PIN can bring the gadget back to a Garmin store, and it will be reset. Otherwise, the unit is useless.
Of course, Garmin Lock won't reassemble your shattered car window. But such antitheft devices will slowly drain the market for stolen devices. In the long run, that will help.
For now, GPS and gadget users need to beef up their sense of security. It's not enough to stash the gadget into your glove box when you park. You've got to hide all the hints for criminals, too -- all the car chargers and power adaptors that act like gadget breadcrumbs. And I can tell you from experience, never leave a dashboard mount in plain view.
"All you're doing is telling that guy there is probably a GPS unit in there," says Garmin's Ted Gartner. And even if you've taken the GPS with you, the mount on the dashboard might lead to a smashed window and a disappointed thief.
Also worth noting, stolen gadgets from cars are not usually covered by auto insurance, says Jean Salvatore of the Insurance Industry of America. Those with homeowner or renter insurance could file a claim through those policies. Those without are generally out of luck.
Gadgets carry valuable cargo
Finally, theft of a piece of electronics from your car might cost you more than the mere price of replacement. Many of these gadgets are chock full of personal information about you. Telephones have your friends’ phone numbers; PocketPCs have your schedule. And that’s not to mention laptop computers, which when stolen occasionally contain millions of Social Security numbers.
That’s why Corrubia, who must pay exorbitant auto insurance rates like everyone else who lives near a major U.S. city, pleads with Paramus residents to take better care of their gadgets every chance he gets.
“We are all paying for this with higher premiums,” he says. By keeping gadgets out of sight, “you can save us all a tremendous amount of money.”