Drivers may have a new reason to fear an automobile break-in: the inspection stickers they must plaster to the inside of their windshield in many states.
In Portland, Maine's largest city, about 40 cars have been hit in the past several months by thieves who have caused thousands of dollars of damage to get the stickers.
And there are sporadic reports elsewhere in the 16 states that require motorists to pay for and display the stickers, which signal that a car has passed a safety or emissions test.
Investigators can't say for sure that the Portland thefts are tied to the economic recession, but one theory is that people who have lost their jobs and can't afford costly car repairs are buying the stolen inspection stickers on the black market.
"Until recently you wouldn't believe there was a market for this, but there's a market for this," said Portland police Lt. Tony Ward.
The thieves smash a window to get inside and then heat the outside of the windshield to loosen the glue on the sticker, police say. The technique allows the thieves to carefully peel away the supposedly tamperproof stickers.
The victim usually ends up with a cracked windshield from the heat, in addition to a broken side window and thousands of glass shards inside the vehicle.
A team of detectives is working to crack the case, Ward said, but another driver worried that authorities don't think it's a big problem.
"It's incredibly infuriating," said Jack Rent, a Gorham resident whose commercial van has been targeted six times in Portland, causing out-of-pocket repair costs of about $3,000. "Most of the police officers say there's not that much they can do."
In most of Maine, the annual inspection costs $12.50, regardless of whether a vehicle passes or fails. It costs $18.50 in Cumberland County, home to Portland, where an additional emissions inspection is required.
It's unclear what the stolen stickers might be selling for, Ward said.
A big hassle
All told, 18 states and the District of Columbia have some sort of inspection program for vehicles, according to the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. All but two require the sticker to be displayed, usually on the windshield.
Because of the economy, motorists are hanging onto their cars longer, and some are delaying maintenance to save money, said Christie Hyde, an AAA spokeswoman in Florida. Sometimes that backfires when costly repairs are needed to pass inspection, she said.
Someone last month broke into two vehicles to steal inspection stickers at Dixie Motorsports Inc. in Suffolk, Va., said owner George Murray.
"It's just the time and hassle and aggravation more than anything else," said Murray, who paid $350 for repairs because the damage didn't meet his insurance deductible.
Down the road, another auto dealership, Ride Time, was the victim of four smash-and-grabs in one night. "Every one had high-value CD players in them, and the only thing they took was the inspection sticker," said Randy White, Ride Time's service manager.
Rent knows the routine well. His primary job is as a fish broker, but he also owns a day care center. And it's the center's 15-passenger van that has been targeted six times, each time over the weekend while parked in a commercial lot.
A call from the day care center on a Monday morning rarely yields good news, he said: "I say, 'Let me guess. They smashed the window again.'"