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Bay Area Becomes Top Spot In Nation For Auto Theft

OAKLAND (CBS SF) -- Bay Area law enforcement is seeing a surge in stolen cars, with the region now the top spot in the country for auto theft.

During a recent afternoon in East Oakland, California Highway Patrol investigator Mark Hinch swiveled around excitedly in the driver's seat of his undercover car. The veteran Alameda County Regional Auto Theft Task Force member has spotted something suspicious, a white van parked on a side street in front of a school. Hinch gets out to take a closer look.

The doors are open. The inside is trashed. Valuables like tools or personal items are gone. The ignition has been stripped and the engine battery has been cut out. Hinch calls in the plates, and his suspicions are confirmed. The van comes back as stolen.

"On any day the hot sheet will probably have another 30-40 vehicles county wide that are added to it," said Hinch. "The hot is sheet is just the most recent vehicles, the last three or four days."

But the hot sheet - a list of the most recently reported stolen vehicles Hinch and other inspectors use daily - only tells part of the story. The white van, and a sports utility vehicle Hinch recovers less than 30 minutes later, are not included on the most current hot sheet list. Not a surprise to Hinch who says stolen cars, trucks, even U-Haul's are an easy find in the East Bay.

"Oakland is a hotspot for auto theft but it's not necessarily where all the auto theft is happening," explains Hinch. "But what has happened in the Oakland area is that a lot of the cars stolen from throughout the Bay Area end up in Oakland."

According to the most recent data given by the FBI, a motor vehicle is stolen every 46 seconds in the United States. Last year, the National Insurance Crime Bureau released a report that showed the Bay Area as being the number one hot spot for stolen motor vehicles in the United States. From 2012 to 2014 nearly 90,000 vehicles were stolen in the San Francisco, Oakland and Hayward areas.

"Just the sheer numbers," explained Hinch. "So many cars are stolen and there are so many different cases you can work on."

Recovering these vehicles is a huge task. Each case is unique, with vehicles stolen for different reasons. Some are re-sold. Others are taken for just a simple "joyride." Others are chopped up for parts. High-end motors, rims, even seats can be re-sold for cash. Hinch says Camaros have been a popular grab recently, with nearly 300 newer models stolen in the East Bay in the last three years.

One of those cars was Hilary Fitzgerald-Nicholson's 2013 Camaro. It was boosted in broad daylight in front of witnesses, who reportedly saw the thief steal her cherished car in record time.

"He got in my ... car and just drove off. He didn't even get under the hood. There was no alarm," said Fitzgerald-Nicholson. "You just can't underestimate how it feels."

Nicholson says she fears standard factory security devices are not enough to prevent thieves from stealing cars, like her Camaro. Hinch says he agrees.

"They found a way to defeat the stock security system of these vehicles," said Hinch.

He suggests owners invest in an aftermarket engine immobilizer, a specialized plug installed in the car ignition system. Hinch also says aftermarket GPS tracking devices can be a good investment for car owners.

The good news for owners is that vehicle thefts are down overall, nationwide. Hinch asserts the lower theft numbers are due in part due to law enforcement agencies sharing theft data with automobile manufacturers and the insurance industry.

His last bit of advice to owners who have had a vehicle stolen: "You are your own best detective! When it comes to finding your stolen vehicle, we have people all the time that contact us and say, 'Hey! My vehicle - I just saw its part on Craigslist,'" said Hinch.

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