Car thefts up nearly 20 percent in Washington, FBI says. What can be done?

SEATTLE - It was just after 10 p.m. two weeks ago in Belltown. A man was walking to his car when four suspects assaulted him, then stole his cellphone, some cash and his 2007 Honda Civic.

Seattle police say they’ve made an arrest, but the incident is all too familiar in Western Washington. New FBI crime statistics released Monday show just how familiar.

Motor vehicle thefts were up nearly 20 percent in 2016 from the previous year in Washington state, according to the data. The City of Seattle had the most vehicles stolen at 4,128. Tacoma was second with 2,619 stolen vehicles, and first in thefts per capita (1.25).

So, what is causing the spike? And what can be done about it?

“It’s tough,” Seattle police Det. Patrick Michaud said. “It’s very difficult for us to prevent somebody from stealing a car. To do that, we’d have to find them actively stealing a car. But, we do a lot of educational outreach to help people make good choices and offer them tips on how to prevent auto theft.”

Michaud said car theft, like most property crime, is usually a crime of opportunity. Sometimes, he said, the simplest measures can help deter criminals. Don’t leave your keys in your car. Close your windows and lock your doors. Park in well-lit areas.

Sgt. Cindi West of the King County Sheriff's Department offered similar advice.

"There is no foolproof way to keep your car from getting stolen," she said. "But lock your car,  and don’t leave keys in the car. Using a club or alarm can be a deterrent, but  if someone really wants to get your car they will find a way."

Altogether, 32,286 vehicles were stolen in the state in 2016, according to the FBI’s numbers. That’s a 19.7 percent increase over 2015, when 26,967 vehicles were stolen.

Six cities in King County were among the top 10 in the state in the number of stolen vehicles, with Kent (4th), Federal Way (5th), Renton (6th), Auburn (9th) and Burien (10th) joining Seattle (1st).

Spokane came in third, Vancouver seventh and Everett eighth.

Mike Painter, the executive director of the Washington Auto Theft Prevention Authority says the number of thefts is somewhat cyclical, and he says the numbers are actually down so far in 2017.

"It depends on a lot of factors," he said. Those factors could include new anti-theft technology, how diligent people are about locking their vehicles, or even which criminals are in or out of prison, he said.

"It's hard to say these are the reasons why."

Michaud and West said the number of thefts appear to be flat this year so far in the city and county. Michaud also pointed out that more often than not, stolen vehicles are recovered by police.

“We have a really good history on finding cars,” he said. “About 86 percent of them do end up finding their way back home.”

Toni Matous is an agent for Magnolia Insurance Agency in Seattle. She said her and others in the industry have recently noticed a “significant increase” in thefts.

She says the trend could lead to customers paying more for coverage.

“Insurance companies are all about stats,” Matous said. “It is so finely tuned that if they see more stolen BMWs or Hondas than Chevys, there is a rate increase for the BMW … They also look at ZIP codes and increase rates in the ZIP codes that see the most crime activity.”

For victims of car theft, the cost could be more severe.

“Car thefts are considered a ‘comprehensive’ loss,” Matous said. “If a consumer has an older vehicle, many times, they do not purchase comprehensive coverage because the payout from the insurance company is so small.”

That’s where those tips from Det. Michaud come in. Perhaps the most important, he said, is to be proactive.

"If you see something going on in your neighborhood or in a parking garage that kind of raises the hairs on your neck or looks a little suspicious," he said, "don’t hesitate to call either 911 or the non-emergency line (206-625-5011).”

That may be the only way, he said, to stop a car theft before it begins.

Washington state cities with the most stolen vehicles in 2016, according to data released Monday by the FBI:

City                        Population                          Stolen vehicles

Seattle                  700,313                              4,128

Tacoma                209,914                                 2,619

Spokane              214,028                                 1,992

Kent                      128,604                                 1,433

Federal Way       96,338                                   1,088

Renton                 101,908                                 1,061

Vancouver          174,912                                 1,007

Everett                 108,988                                 958

Auburn                 78,400                                   698

Burien                   50,934                                   666

What can you do to reduce the risk of getting your car stolen? Here's the top 10 tips from Washington Auto Theft Prevention Authority