- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 7, 2005

Area police are joining agencies around the country in using a time-tested ruse to catch auto thieves, and crooks are falling for it hook, line and sinker. More than 30,000 vehicles were stolen regionally last year, almost half of them in Prince George’s County.

The agencies are parking “bait cars” in some of their worst crime zones to curtail vehicle thefts.

Arlington County, the first on the East Coast to use the cars, said its three-year-old program has resulted in 63 felony charges, 38 misdemeanor charges, 38 arrests and 31 guilty pleas or convictions. “I never realized we’d be as successful as we have been,” said Detective Chris Dengeles, coordinator of the Arlington County police department’s program.

County officials also said the number of car thefts has decreased from 676 when the program started in 2002 to 493 last year and that the program has become a model for neighboring agencies. “We’re constantly receiving phone calls and visits on how to start the program,” Detective Dengeles said.

The District, Fairfax and Montgomery counties also have programs, and Alexandria and Prince George’s County have programs in the planning stages.

Police say the cars are an inexpensive way to catch and prosecute thieves because satellite-tracking systems eliminate time-consuming stakeouts, and the onboard video and audio recorders yield solid evidence.

“The beauty of the system is you don’t have a team of detectives sitting on the car,” said Arlington County police department spokesman Matt Martin. “The car actually calls us.”

The cars also come with remote controls that lock thieves inside and stall the engines, which eliminates dangerous police chases. The tracking software costs about $4,000, and the other equipment costs an additional $1,500 to $3,000, according to a USA Today report.

Mr. Martin said the Arlington fleet is based on the 10 most-stolen vehicles in the area, but he declined to discuss the makes and models. He also said police sometimes place valuable items in the vehicles to entice thieves.

The roughly 1.3 million cars stolen nationwide in 2003 reportedly generated about $338 billion worth of related insurance claims, including the theft of such items as stereos, air bags and xenon headlights. Insurance companies are so eager to reduce claims that they have contributed to some of the approximately 100 bait-car programs in the country.

Area officials reported no major problems with the program, though there have been some reports of software glitches and other agencies occasionally losing contact with the cars.

In Prince George’s County, where a car is stolen nearly every half-hour on average, officials said they will have two bait cars in service within the next few months. County officials already have an aggressive anti-theft program, which they say has reduced vehicle theft by 16 percent since last year. However, the county’s 18,485 thefts last year was more than the total number stolen elsewhere in Maryland.

“Auto-theft investigators and tactical teams are very effective without bait cars, but it’s a tool we can use in a neighborhood where there’s been a lot of auto theft,” said Capt. Russell San Felice, commander of the Washington Area Vehicle Enforcement (WAVE) team.

The District did not provide details of its program. Fairfax County expects to have three vehicles on the streets within the next six months.

Montgomery County started its bait-car program in November. Officials said only that they have more than one vehicle and so far have made no arrests.

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