Car jackings in Northwest Philadelphia ‘outliers’ in rising car theft count

by Walt Maguire
Posted 1/20/21

Two notable car jackings in Northwest Philadelphia have put residents on edge, but police say the two incidents are “outliers” and don’t represent a new crime pattern. Police said cars stolen when the owner has left it running and an increase in thefts of catalytic converters represent the real threat.

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Car jackings in Northwest Philadelphia ‘outliers’ in rising car theft count

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Two notable car jackings in Northwest Philadelphia have put residents on edge, but police say the two incidents are “outliers” and don’t represent a new crime pattern. Instead, police said cars stolen when the owner has left it running and an increase in thefts of catalytic converters represent the real threat to Northwest Philadelphia residents.

On Monday, January 11, at 8:15 a.m., a car was stolen at gunpoint on East Allens Lane. Three assailants ambushed a man as he was getting out of his car, taking his wallet, phone and the car. At seven the previous Tuesday, two assailants stopped a 20-year-old man at gunpoint as he was getting in his car on the 8000 block of Winston Road, taking his wallet, phone and the car. In both cases the cars were later recovered using GPS tracking. In both cases, the drivers complied and were not harmed.

In the Winston road case, both assailants were apprehended and face various charges related to the crime.

The Philadelphia Police have not determined a connection between the two incidents, or a pattern of increased armed auto theft. The January 11 case is still under investigation.

No other armed car jackings have been reported in the weeks prior or since. There were 123 cars stolen in Northwest Philadelphia in November, three from Mt. Airy, and 128 in December 2020, three from Chestnut Hill, which is not significantly higher than the same period in 2019.

Theft from parked vehicles ticked up in December, possibly related to more curbside pickup. Many of these incidents happened during the night, or in one instance when a car was left running and unattended. According to the Philadelphia Police Department, most auto thefts, and theft from autos, occur because the vehicle was left unlocked, though in some cases entry was gained by force.

The police report an increase in the theft of catalytic converters from hybrid cars. On January 12 alone, four were stolen.

“The metal in the catalytic converter for a Prius is valuable,” said Officer Raubert Hicks, 14th District’s Crime Prevention Officer at the 14th District. Since they process less exhaust and tend to be less contaminated than standard converters, they have a high resale value.

The police recommend “aftermarket” alarm systems that react to motion – a broken window, a jack lifting the car – since items left in the car, tires and catalytic converters are targeted. The alarm systems on most modern cars only register a problem with the locks and ignition, so reaching through a window to open the door from the inside will not trigger a siren. An old-fashioned rock through the window will not set the alarm off.

Newer cars use key fobs instead of a physical key, and thieves can capture the signal and reproduce it to unlock a car. The Philadelphia Police Prevention division recommends storing fobs away from the front of the house, or in an RFID container that blocks the signal. However, it is also possible to mistakenly leave the car unlocked because the driver did not push the right button on the fob; it can be impossible to tell whether the signal was hacked or there was owner error.

“Key fobs get a lot of attention, but in 85 percent of cases the car is just unlocked,” Officer Hicks said.

With new vehicle assistance systems such as OnStar and StarLink, GPS tracking can locate a vehicle, and in some cases can be used to immobilize it remotely. In the theft on Winston Road, not only was the car recovered within three hours, but the phone was also recovered and the two suspects were arrested.

Technology changes have changed the targets for car thefts, but the safety recommendations from law enforcement point to traditional safeguards: Do not walk away from the car and leave it open.

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