Leaving car windows or sunroofs slightly open may seem like a good way to keep parked vehicles cool on hot summer days, but it’s an invitation to thieves prowling for opportunities.
It’s a lot like rolling out the welcome mat when leaving a knapsack, laptop computer, GPS, camera or anything of value in plain sight on the dash, seat, console or floor.
That’s exactly what occurred on a recent Friday afternoon. A Toronto Star employee happened to look out of a coffee room window onto a parking lot as a suspicious man crept from car to car, peering inside in search of things to steal.
When Matthew Cole saw the man pry open a van’s gaping no-draft window and crawl inside, he called 911 and continued to watch the burglar in action.
“He pulled it open like he was opening a slightly difficult two-four (case of beer). It just went pop and he dove in with his feet in the air, got inside and closed the tinted window. A couple of minutes later, he came out the same window and he didn’t seem to have found anything,” said Cole, a business geomatics manager at the Star.
Cole was on the phone updating the 911 operator, as co-workers gathered to watch the roaming thief peering into vehicles in another section of the lot until he spotted something inside an older model van. He pried open the out-swinging rear window left ajar by its owner and slithered inside.
Minutes later, he emerged from the van’s side door wearing a change of clothing.
“This time, he had a knapsack on and slung what looked like a laptop bag over his shoulder. He’d also changed clothes from trousers and a shirt to shorts and a different shirt,” Cole added.
The thief walked north from the parking lot, crossed Lake Shore Blvd. and headed up Yonge St.
At home that evening, Cole got a phone call from a police officer who took his statement and told him a suspect had been arrested downtown, after police used the iPhone’s location application to track its whereabouts — in the suspect’s hands.
The laptop had already been sold, “for $20 to buy crack,” the officer told him.
“I was shocked, because it never occurred to me how easy it was for him to get in. There’s got to be several thousand vehicles with that kind of window function (no-draft), so every parking lot is going to have that kind of opportunity during a heat wave and downtown parking lots would be prime,” Cole said.
The owner of the van, who had been running at an event in the area, showed up at the parking lot shortly after the break-in to find his vehicle’s window latch broken and his change of clothes and electronic devices gone.
Police advise motorists not to advertise their possessions to thieves and make sure their vehicle’s windows and sunroofs aren’t left open for easy access.
“Out of sight, out of mind,” said Const. Tony Vella, of the Toronto Police Service.
“Keep your car clear because criminals aren’t going to bother breaking into a car when they can’t see anything of value inside. Don’t make it easy for them. Put things under the seat or keep them locked in the trunk,” he added.
He said it’s always wise to keep a log of the make, model and serial number of any device, so they can be identified when recovered. Police routinely check downtown pawn shops to track stolen items.
“Protect yourself by always making sure your car doors, windows and sunroofs are locked. Also, be a good neighbour and call police when you see something suspicious, just as the gentleman did in this case,” Vella said.
Surprisingly, many people who have their cars broken into don’t even bother to report break-ins and theft from their cars.
After arresting a suspect in connection with a series of smash and grab thefts from cars in North York parking lots earlier this year, officers found that 10 GPS devices they recovered weren’t reported stolen by their owners.