The Bay Area had the nation’s highest rate of car theft last year — and the problem is getting worse in San Francisco, statistics show.
The rate of auto thefts in the city rose 14 percent in 2014 and is up another 10 percent as of Sept. 1, police records show. If the trend continues, roughly 7,300 trucks, automobiles and motorcycles could be reported missing in 2015 — San Francisco’s highest count in nearly a decade and a more than 80 percent increase from the low point in 2010.
The increase bucks state and regional trends.
Per capita, Oakland ranked second in the nation for stolen vehicles in 2012. The numbers there have steadily dropped during the past few years and leveled off this month. Auto theft fell about 4 percent in California from 2013 to 2014, the most recent statewide figures available.
Many criminologists attribute the decline to technology. Smart keys and keyless ignitions have complicated the crime, and police gadgets such as automated license plate readers make it easier to find missing vehicles.
“Cars are just more difficult to steal now,” said Frank Scafidi, a former FBI agent and spokesman for the National Insurance Crime Bureau. “There’s only so much you can do with a stolen car: You can turn it over to someone for $100, go through the hassle of trying to sell it yourself, or figure out how to do some type of identity theft.”
It’s unclear why, exactly, car theft is up in San Francisco. But the way cars vanish and reappear offers one possible clue. While many disappear for good, hundreds go missing for a few days or weeks before reappearing — leading investigators to suspect some aren’t stolen to be sold.
“We believe suspects use them for robberies, shootings and other stuff,” said San Francisco police spokesperson Grace Gatpandan. “The vehicle isn’t tied to the suspect at all, because the license plate isn’t connected.”
In August, police recovered 220 automobiles and motorcycles, according to data obtained from AutoReturn, which tows and holds all of the city’s stolen vehicles. Many were found in the Bayview neighborhood (39), South of Market (22) the Western Addition (16) and downtown (15).
Police say they are trying to curb the multiyear increase. In May the department beefed up enforcement for nine days, nabbing 40 car-theft suspects and recovering 89 cars.
Around the same time as that operation, someone stole Potrero Hill resident Galateia Kazakia’s 1995 Acura Integra for the second time in less than two years. “It was a Friday night, and we were leaving at 7 a.m. the next morning to go to Pennsylvania,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’ll take care of this on the way to the airport.’”
Reporting a stolen car, though, is not that simple. When Kazakia called police she was told she had to report the crime in person. Midway through her trip the car began accumulating parking tickets — presumably it had been dumped.
After returning to San Francisco, Kazakia found her car using an online ticket-tracker and picked it up. There was no damage, but the ordeal may still cost her. Without an official stolen-and-recovered report, the city refuses to waive the roughly $225 in tickets.
“The first time, it felt like such a violation, it was very emotional,” she said. “The second time around, dealing with the bureaucracy is what’s getting really emotional.”
Despite Kazakia’s bad luck, Potrero Hill has been a relatively safe neighborhood to park this year: 148 vehicles were stolen from the 15,000-person community as of Sept. 1. In the Mission District, 495 cars or motorcycles have dissapeared — an average of more than two per day. The numbers have steadily increased in the neighborhood since 2010.
The small neighborhood of Lakeshore doesn’t top the list when it comes to the number of stolen cars — only 95 were reported missing last year — but it has seen one of the bigger year-to-date swells at 26 percent.
Eight cars were taken from or near the parking lot at Stonestown Galleria so far this year, and five were reported stolen on a one-block stretch of Junipero Serra Boulevard, near San Francisco State University.
Certain blocks even appear to have a car theft problem.
The short stretch of Mission street between Fourth and Fifth streets — which houses the city’s largest parking garage — reported 17 stolen vehicles as of Sept. 1, crime reports show.
Blocks with parking structures often have a lot of stolen vehicles. “This is an issue that garages are addressing on an ongoing basis,” said Paul Rose, spokesman for the San Francisco Metropolitan Transit Agency. “Certainly around the holidays, when some of the numbers do spike.”
The data, however, may be skewed due to the sheer number of vehicles in garages.
Car rental stations in parking facilities could also affect the numbers. There was a rash of Zipcar thefts this year and overdue rental cars are sometimes reported as stolen, police said. Rose was unable to give a breakdown of how many personal vehicles were stolen versus rental cars, and none of the garages contacted responded to requests for comment.
Despite the surge in auto thefts, San Francisco drivers are safer now than they were in the past. The car theft rate peaked in 1992 at nearly 1,700 stolen cars per 100,000 residents. It then fell until 2001, when a second spike occured. By 2005, more than 8,000 disappeared from the streets — or roughly 1,100 per 100,000 residents.
Climbing back up
Thefts declined until 2010 and then began slowly climbing back up. They are projected to hit 859 per 100,000 residents by the end of the year.
Unclear is whether this year is an anomaly or the beginning of another swell.
“There may be some bumps in the road, we may see a year or two with more incidents, but by and large, auto theft is way down,” National Insurance Crime Bureau spokesperson Scafidi said. “If you were to hit a valley and it were to go up and up and up, then that requires looking into it more.”