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Image: GPS system stolen from car
Redmond (Wash.) Police Dept.
In the Seattle suburb of Redmond, reports of GPS thefts jumped 370 percent between 2006 and 2007. “It's a smash and grab, which is done in a matter of seconds,” said Jim Bove with the Redmond Police Department.
By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/30/2008 4:33:24 PM ET 2008-04-30T20:33:24

Serge Barlam knew something was wrong as soon as he saw the broken glass. During the night, someone broke into both of his family’s cars and stole their portable GPS units.

“We got a little bit careless and didn’t take them out,” the Redmond, Wash., resident confessed. “I figured my neighborhood was pretty safe. I never thought this could happen.”  That mistake cost the Barlams more than $1,000.

Mobile GPS units are growing in popularity with both drivers and car thieves. “For someone looking for quick money, this is the way to do it,” said Sgt. Ray Evers with the Philadelphia Police Department. “It’s very, very easy to sell it on the street. And it has a known value of $100 to $150.”

Philadelphia is one of many cities seeing a noticeable increase in GPS-targeted car prowls. In fact, 18 percent of thefts from vehicles there now involve a GPS.

“Every district has had an increase in GPS thefts,” Sgt. Evers said. It’s a trend that is driving up the overall theft rate in Philadelphia.

In the Seattle suburb of Redmond, reports of GPS thefts jumped 370 percent between 2006 and 2007. “It's a smash and grab, which is done in a matter of seconds,” said Jim Bove with the Redmond Police Department.

Nationwide, the numbers are staggering. FBI statistics show there were nearly 5,500 reports of GPS thefts last year at this time. This year it’s more than 31,000.

A crime of opportunity
Police say the crooks get lucky when we get careless. GPS thieves tend to hit places with high concentrations of cars, such as apartment or townhouse parking lots, shopping malls, commuter parking lots and garages. “It’s a lot faster than going door to door in residential areas,” said Lt. Paul Starks with the Montgomery County, Md., Police Department.

Someone broke into Gunter Leeb’s car earlier this year while it was parked in the company garage. “I didn’t assume a fairly low-end GPS was worth enough money to break the window to steal,” he said. It was. His total loss: about $450.

A visible GPS unit is an obvious target. But car prowlers also look for any signs one might be hidden inside the vehicle, such as a mount on the window or dashboard. Even the circle left on the windshield from a suction cup mount is enough for some crooks to break in. They assume a GPS unit is hidden somewhere inside. So get rid of that tell-tale sign.

You can make your vehicle less inviting to some thieves by simply rolling up the windows and locking the doors. Lt. Starks told me about a police surveillance team that watched a couple of crooks walk down the street looking for GPS units to steal. “Their strategy was very simple,” he explained. “Those cars that were unlocked, they went through. Those that were locked, they kept walking.” Cleary, this won’t stop a determined thief. But you can’t go wrong doing it.

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Fighting back
Some police departments have started public education programs to warn people about the growing problem. In Montgomery County, Md., the police department holds community meetings and mails out information. Drivers are encouraged to remove all valuable items, such as laptops, cell phones, MP3 players, and GPS units.

The department also gives residents a small microfiber cloth to wipe away the suction cup marks on their windshields.

The Police Explorers club goes to shopping malls and puts postcards under the windshield wipers of vehicles where electronic devices can be seen inside. The card explains that this increases the chance of a break-in.

Garmin now provides police departments with dummy GPS units to put in bait vehicles. The vehicles are placed under surveillance and if the bad guys strike, the police are there to arrest them.

Remove it or lose it
You wouldn’t leave a wallet full of credit cards and cash on the dashboard. But that’s exactly what you’re doing when you leave a GPS unit out for everyone to see.

Paul Bryant learned that lesson the hard way a few weeks ago, when someone broke into his vehicle and tried to steal his GPS unit.

"And it was completely brazen," he said. "There are cars everywhere, people coming home from work. It just took a matter of seconds."

Bryant says his car was parked in a well-lit area in front of his condo, but that didn't stop the thief.

"He saw it sitting up there and said, 'There's an easy $100 bucks.' And so he walked around the side of the car, broke the window, reached in and grabbed the GPS.”

Luckily for Bryant, the clumsy crook dropped the unit and ran away. But replacing the busted window cost him about $250.

“The lesson here is put everything away,” Bryant urged. “Make your car look as ordinary and boring as you possibly can.”

In other words, don't leave anything inside your car that a thief could steal.

We think we're clever when we put that GPS unit, MP3 player, or laptop in the glove compartment or under the seat. But here's a reality check: Crooks know where to look.

© 2013 msnbc.com.  Reprints

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