Hot Wheels: Where vehicle thieves are striking

Hot Wheels: Where vehicle thieves are striking

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Police records reviewed by the WMC Action News 5 investigators point to dramatic increases in the number of vehicles stolen in Memphis, Shelby County and the suburbs.

Experts say it’s part of a national trend, but call the uptick in the Memphis-area’s numbers particularly alarming.

Based on preliminary figures from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation released by the University of Memphis Public Safety Institute and the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission, motor vehicle thefts increased 12 percent in Memphis in the third quarter of the year, while increasing 15.5 percent countywide.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau tracks auto theft in its annual Hot Wheels report.

In 2015 the Memphis metro area ranked #82 on the list - with roughly 3,500 stolen vehicles.

In the most recent report, the Bluff City skyrocketed to #50 with just over 5,000 cars stolen.

WMC Action News 5 investigators dug through the numbers to see who thieves are targeting.

"I know I locked it," said Robert Blackstone, "Right now I'm driving in a borrowed car."

Black belt holder Robert Blackstone is one of the thousands in Memphis victimized by a car thief. He leads a donation-only Karate ministry at Kirby Woods Baptist Church.

In mid-October, somebody stole his 1997 Chevrolet Suburban out of his driveway near Winchester and Hacks Cross, with $7,300 worth of Karate materials inside. With no busted glass or other signs of forced entry left behind, he’s not sure how the thieves did it.

"Never heard a thing," he said.

Blackstone tells WMC Action News 5 his neighbor’s truck was stolen just days prior, and they’re not alone by any means.

WMC Action News 5 investigators requested records from Memphis, Germantown, Collierville, Bartlett, and Shelby County, which includes unincorporated areas and Lakeland and Arlington. All the numbers point to dramatic increases in the number of vehicles stolen in recent years.

Memphis saw 2,797 car thefts in 2016. The number jumped to 3,546 in 2017, and so far in 2018 the city has seen 2,961.

In Germantown, the number of car thefts so far in 2018 is double the number in 2016. Collierville saw 11 car thefts in 2016. They're at 21 so far this year.

The latest FBI crime report shows nationwide auto theft in 2017 is down from its highs of 1.2 million in the early 2000s but steadily ticking back up since hitting a low in 2014.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), who tracks auto theft in its Hot Spots report, shows a troubling trend in Memphis.

By 2015, the Memphis metro area ranked #82 on the list for most stolen cars, with roughly 3,500. By 2016, we dropped a bit, to #85 with a little over 4,000. But in the recent report on 2017, Memphis skyrocketed to #50, with just more than 5,000 cars stolen. It was a 1,000 vehicle uptick from the prior year.

"That is somewhat concerning," said Roger Morris, Vice-President and Chief Communications Officer of the NICB.

Morris said it's hard to pinpoint why there is an uptick in thefts but indicated the higher price of vehicles may have something to do with it.

"The value of the cars are so high these days that many people, the criminals that were shying away from auto theft a few years back, are trying to do it now," he said.

Morris also said in Memphis the NICB is seeing bolder thefts. Earlier this week, federal officials announced the arrest of five carjacking suspects, noting that carjackings in Memphis were up 87 percent since last year.

"What we are hearing reports of are more cars being stolen very brazenly at gas stations where people are filling them up, almost carjackings," said Morris.

As for which vehicles get swiped the most in Tennessee, a 2002 Ford pickup takes the top spot, followed by a 2005 Chevy Pickup, and a 1997 Honda Accord.

In Mississippi, a 2005 Ford Pickup is number one, with a 1994 Chevy Pickup next in line, followed by a 2006 Nissan Altima.

In Arkansas, all three top vehicles stolen are trucks, starting with a 2000 Chevy Pickup, followed by a 2005 Ford Pickup, and then a 2000 GMC Pickup.

The NICB said most thefts are a result of driver carelessness like leaving keys or fobs in cars, not locking doors, parking outside when an enclosed garage is available or leaving a car running.

The NICB said relay thefts are possible but rare. Those occur in newer, high-end cars where thieves spoof the signal and trick the key fob into thinking the car is nearby.

Robert Blackstone's 1997 Chevy Suburban didn't have anything like that. He believes his truck was just an easy target. Now he's out of a ride and the materials for his ministry.

“My guess is they simply towed it off,” Blackstone said.

Below are additional statistics of vehicle thefts in the Mid-South:

Shelby County car thefts (unincorporated areas, Lakeland, Arlington)

Source: Shelby County Sheriff’s Office

  • 2015 171 vehicles 2016 187 vehicles 
  • 2017 236 vehicles 
  • 2018 238 vehicles (so far) 

Memphis car thefts

Source: City of Memphis/ Memphis Police Department

  • 2016 2,797 vehicles 
  • 2017 3,546 vehicles 
  • 2018 2,961 vehicles (as of Oct 16) 

Bartlett car thefts

Source: Bartlett Police Department

  • 2016 48 vehicles 
  • 2017 56 vehicles 
  • 2018 64 vehicles (as of Sept 11) 

Collierville car thefts

Source: Collierville Police Department

  • 2016 11 vehicles 
  • 2017 22 vehicles 
  • 2018 21 vehicles (as of Sept 20) 

Germantown car thefts

Source: Germantown Police Department

  • 2016 12 vehicles 
  • 2017 29 vehicles 
  • 2018 32 vehicles (as of Sept 30) 

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