Lock your cars! Vehicle theft spikes in COVID-19 pandemic

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Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

This Thursday, May 21, 2020, photo shows a parked car with a broken driver's side window after a smash-and-grab break-in in Los Angeles. The coronavirus hasn't been kind to car owners. With more people than ever staying home to lessen the spread of COVID-19, their sedans, pickup trucks and SUVs are parked unattended on the streets, making them easy targets for opportunistic thieves. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

LOS ANGELES – The coronavirus hasn’t been kind to car owners.

With more people than ever staying home to lessen the spread of COVID-19, their sedans, pickup trucks and SUVs are parked unattended on the streets, making them easy targets for opportunistic thieves.

Despite silent streets and nearly nonexistent traffic, vehicle larcenies shot up 63% in New York and nearly 17% in Los Angeles from Jan. 1 through mid-May, compared with the same period last year.

And many other law enforcement agencies around the U.S. are reporting an increase in stolen cars and vehicle burglaries, even as violent crime has dropped dramatically nationwide in the coronavirus pandemic. It's a low-risk crime with a potentially high reward, police say, especially when many drivers leave their doors unlocked or their keys inside.

“You might as well put a sticker on the window that says ‘come take my stuff,’” said an exasperated Alex Villanueva, the Los Angeles County sheriff.

In Austin, Texas, last month, a whopping 72% of the 322 stolen vehicles had their keys nearby. The total number of auto thefts in April spiked about 50%, and burglaries to vehicles were up 2% from April 2019.

The virus has created a “perfect storm,” said Austin police Sgt. Chris Vetrano, a supervisor in the 11-detective auto theft unit that investigates stolen vehicle cases.

The elements for that storm: Drivers are at home and not using or checking their cars regularly. School's out, so teenagers are trying their luck. Criminals are out of work and have more time on their hands or need fast money to support a drug habit.