What’s driving the rise in car thefts across the DC area?

The number of cars being stolen continues to rise in the D.C. area.

Compared to this time last year, auto thefts are up 84% in Montgomery County, with more than a thousand stolen so far this year compared 500 in 2022. In DC 3,373 stolen car cases has auto thefts up 118% and with 3,820 stolen cars this year has led to a 180% spike in Prince George’s County. Fairfax County, Virginia has reported a 12% rise with 508 stolen vehicles being reported so far this year.

“We’ve seen a significant increase in the number of auto thefts, compared to last year, so far this year,” said Nicholas Augustine, assistant chief of police for the Montgomery County Police Department.

He said a majority of cars are stolen by teenagers, many of whom are inspired by TikTok challenges involving Kia and Hyundai cars.

Augustine said while many of the cars taken have been made by those manufacturers, they are not the only ones disappearing. While most stolen cars are recovered, not all are, according to Augustine.

Some stolen cars being shipped overseas

“We also are seeing an increase of vehicles being stolen, and then taken into certain ports and sent overseas for sales,” Augustine said.

While cars are being stolen from all over the county, Augustine said the hot spots are the downtowns of Silver Spring and Wheaton.

In response to the spike in cases, the county’s police department has seen the return of its auto theft unit, which focuses on these cases. The specialized unit was disbanded after funding for it was slashed from the 2021 county budget. It was put back together last year.

“That’s having a dedicated sergeant and five officers to handle auto thefts and auto crimes in Montgomery County, and also to have a crime analyst assigned just to them to look at patterns that are going on in the community, and analyze that information and provide that information not only to those detectives, but to officers as well as people in the community,” Augustine said.

Because the rise isn’t unique to the county, Augustine said the department is working with other area police departments and federal agencies.

“The concern is, you know, this is a property crime but what was the intent of the vehicle to be stolen?” Augustine said. “Was it being used to commit a violent crime in a neighboring jurisdiction or in the community? Or was it just used for a joyride experience?”

Ways to deter thieves

There are ways to deter thieves from swiping your car, such as locking your doors and never leaving spare keys in the car.

Augustine said there are also steps you can take to help police find your car sooner, if it is taken. Those include using a tracker such as Apple Air Tag or Tile, if your car doesn’t have a system such as OnStar which allows for stolen vehicles to be located. Also, memorize your license plate number or make sure it written down somewhere where you can quickly find it, such as a purse or wallet, in the event your car is taken.

With tag information, tag readers on police patrol cars and toll plazas around the region can tip off police to stolen vehicles faster.

Augustine said if you’re a victim of car theft, never go searching for your vehicle yourself.

“Some of these vehicles may be used in violent crimes. So, with the increased number of guns that have been recovered regionally, you have to look out for your own safety,” Augustine said.

Also, with more teenagers committing these crimes, Augustine urges parents to keep a close eye on what their kids are doing.

“If you’re seeing any suspicious activity, if their friends are picking them up in a new car every day, it’s just looking at the common denominator with any patterns that have changed over a period of time,” Augustine said.


Mike Murillo

Mike Murillo is a reporter and anchor at WTOP. Before joining WTOP in 2013, he worked in radio in Orlando, New York City and Philadelphia.

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