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Groups of auto burglars in recent weeks have been roaming residential neighborhoods, including Old Palo Alto, Professorville and Crescent Park, and now, residents whose surveillance cameras have caught the thieves in the act are turning the videos over to the police.

How the groups operate was recently captured on March 4 on video from Old Palo Alto and Professorville. The same three people were seen walking through streets and up residents’ driveways, testing car door handles.

Police say the thieves have stolen both small items, such as expensive sunglasses, small electronics and money, as well as the car itself if the owners have left a key or fob in the glovebox.

Old Palo Alto resident Michael Day’s surveillance camera documented three people walking down Middlefield Road near Santa Rita Avenue. One of the hooded figures came up his driveway and tried to open the door handle of his car, the video shows.

A second video captured on the same day by a Professorville resident named Winnie, who asked that her last name not be published, showed the three figures also trying to open car doors. In both cases, they were seen checking out BMWs and Mercedes sedans.

Day said some car models are favored by thieves because they have keyless entry and people sometimes leave their fobs in their unlocked cars. He has lived in his home since 1993, and although his car has been crashed into over the years, those incidents were not crimes, he said. That’s changed recently.

“My neighbor next door had his catalytic converter stolen in his driveway,” he said. “There’s an uptick now. Now I lock everything up.”

Crescent Park residents also reported at least four incidents between March 8 and 10, including incidents when thieves smashed car windows, according to neighborhood emails.

Forced entry, such as breaking a window, makes the theft of property an “auto burglary,” whereas when property is taken from an unlocked car, police log it as “theft from an auto.” The Palo Alto Police Department’s crime log for the period of March 10 through 16 listed at least 25 auto burglaries, many occurring in mid- to late February in parking garages and others happening in March. The police also listed five additional earlier thefts from autos and 12 auto burglaries between Feb. 17 and March 9.

Palo Alto police acting Lt. Brian Philip said the thieves often circulate through neighborhoods at night on bicycles, in cars or on foot. While they mostly rummage through cars seeking small items, he has worked cases in which the loss can be considerable. One time, a victim had stored a large amount of cash in the car, he said.

Mostly, the overnight thieves roaming the neighborhoods are checking for unlocked doors and not breaking windows.

“They don’t punch a window in a driveway because people will hear the glass break,” Philip said.

The number of stolen cars is actually small, Philip said. But when cars are stolen, it’s usually because people have habitually stored a spare key or key fob in the glove compartment to be used for valet parking.

Car owners also leave a smart-key fob in the car as back up, he said.

Of course, an unlocked car with a smart key fob inside is easy to steal.

“All a car thief has to do is get in, step on the brake and press start,” Philip said.

Thefts and burglaries from autos aren’t new, but right now they are part of an ongoing increase in property crimes that includes mob smash-and-grabs from retail establishments, shoplifting of expensive items and residential burglaries.

Last year saw a decline in property crimes over 2020: Palo Altans reported 98 stolen vehicles, down from 112; 41 robberies, up from 39; 179 burglaries, down from 243; and 1,356 thefts, down from 1,571, according to the department’s crime statistics, which were published March 15. The data didn’t separate out auto from residential or commercial burglaries and other types of thefts, however.

Philip said that Palo Alto remains “a very safe city,” despite these recent crimes. Still residents can do their part to reduce crime even further.

“Crime prevention is always the key,” Philip said. Residents should lock their cars and close the windows, not leave any keys in the car or hidden underneath the vehicle and refrain from keeping valuables in the car. To avoid becoming a victim of a violent crime, people should not confront a suspicious person. Instead, call the police department, he said.

More information on preventing thefts and other crimes can be found on the Palo Alto Police Department’s website at cityofpaloalto.org.



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