WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. (CBSNewYork) -- Westchester County officials on Thursday announced a crackdown in response to a dramatic spike in auto thefts.
They say car thefts have more than doubled in residential areas since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, CBS2's Natalie Duddridge reported.
Speaking at the county courthouse in White Plains, officials said the areas hit the hardest are Scarsdale, Harrison and Rye, adding thieves aren't taking vehicles for joy rides; they're stealing them for criminal activity.
"I've been hearing a lot of messages from friends saying keep our car doors locked, because car thefts have been up," Scarsdale resident Rachel Cuomo said.
Her fellow residents are also on alert. The Westchester District Attorney's Office has launched a campaign cautioning a spike in auto thefts.
"Certainly, the pandemic has caused a perfect storm for auto thieves. We have a group of individuals who are facing boredom," said Deputy DA Steven Vandervelden. "Generally, the group that is hitting us the most are 15 to 18 years old. So we're talking young kids that are almost playing out, acting out 'Grand Theft Auto.'"
Officials said car thefts in Westchester are up a staggering 60% overall. Scarsdale has seen the biggest spike -- a 2,000% increase. Last year, from January to September, one vehicle was taken. So far this year, there have been 21 stolen.
It's a similar situation in Rye Brook. Last year, there was one by September. This year, there have been 13, a 1,200% increase.
"The reason why our increase is here is that Westchester is centrally located. It's very easy access for these young people to come in from Connecticut, hit the suburbs, and within five minutes be back in their community. They are aware that this is a good feeding ground," DA Anthony Scarpino said.
The DA's office said the thieves are taking the cars to commit other crimes, like drug deals, and are leading police on dangerous high-speed chases.
"There was a car stolen out of Rye that ended up killing a woman in East Haven, Conn.," Vandervelden said.
Officials said it could all be prevented if residents just stopped leaving their keys in the car, which some admit they do.
"If I'm going for a quick drink to Starbucks I'll leave my keys in the car, leave my car running, because what's the point in turning it on and off if it's a quick in and out? Now that I know this, I might have to think twice," Scarsdale resident Tim Thomas said.
"Even I do sometimes. When I'm going to Starbucks I leave my bag in my car and I leave my car running and I'm like, 'Oh, it's Scarsdale. It's five minutes.' But you can't do that anymore," resident Daisy Escalera added.
Investigators said they have not only found that people are leaving their keys and their fobs inside their cars, they're also leaving their garage door openers, which could potentially give thieves access to homes and valuables inside.
"These groups are coming into these towns, our town too, and they're checking door handles. So if they see that the door handle is locked they're moving on to another vehicle," Scarsdale Police Capt. Edward Murphy said.
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