Cameras spot ‘hot’ cars, license plates

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HAMPTON, Va. (AP) — Virginia State Police are using digital cameras that can scan highways and parking lots for stolen cars and license plates.

Using the digital images, police can compare the plates against any database of license plates — including those associated with fugitives, hot cars and stolen plates.

State police began using the $16,000 cameras, or readers, several months ago throughout Virginia. The cameras take 25 photos a second, said Carl Fisher, a special agent with the state police’s Help Eliminate Auto Theft program, or HEAT. Officers only have to activate the cameras, then wait for an alarm to sound if they get a hit. A computer checks the pictures of the plates against the latest FBI “hot sheet” of stolen autos. The equipment can scan plates day or night.

Hampton police have the readers but will not discuss their use. Some other departments are testing them.

Police in Richmond scanned 88,000 vehicles and recovered 30 stolen vehicles and 28 sets of stolen plates during a several-weeks-long operation, Mr. Fisher said. He stopped a man driving a stolen car who turned out to be wanted in two states and had guns and a police officer’s badge in his vehicle.

The readers are only one tool that officials are using to thwart vehicle theft. Thieves are facing a growing array of security devices that make vehicles harder to steal, including alarms, kill switches, smart keys and tracking devices.

Virginia’s auto-theft rate has decreased by 38 percent since 1991, according to a 2005 report by HEAT. Other parts of the United States have also reported decreases.

The state police and police in Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk and Virginia Beach are among agencies across the country using “bait cars,” which have hidden cameras and microphones and are left in high-theft areas. When sensors are activated in the car, an alert is sent to the 911 call center. The vehicles are tracked electronically, and officers are dispatched. Officers can ask the dispatcher to kill the engine and lock the doors once the vehicle is located.

Many of drivers who get caught plead guilty, said Norfolk Detective E.L. Flax.

Officials said consumers can obtain cars with anti-theft gadgets to ward off thieves, but the first line of defense remains locking doors and taking the keys.

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