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Auto Thefts Rise in Milwaukee as Perpetrators Target Certain Older Models

David Guo, flickr
Older Dodge Caravans are among the most popular car models that are stolen.

So far this year, more than 5,600 people in Milwaukee have had their vehicle stolen. The number is more than 67 percent higher than it was at this time in 2013.

You might picture the thieves stealing cars to sell them or to sell their parts. But typically, that's not what's happening. "Often it's been determined that those vehicles have been used in the commission of crimes," says Jim Tolkan, president of the Automobile Dealers Association of Mega Milwaukee, or ADAMM.

"They take the car, and they don't have to worry about covering up plates or discarding plates," Tolkan says.

Tolkan says the thieves often dump the cars, which are recovered. But that doesn't mean the crimes are benign. Steering columns often are damaged during attempted thefts. And those who steal the vehicles sometimes use them for joyrides, damaging the cars -- or causing far more serious destruction.

"The other issue is then the younger kids -- that may not have licenses -- aren't very careful, and unfortunately then there's disastrous consequences," Tolkan says.

Consequences, such as traffic fatalities.

It's not clear just why Milwaukee is seeing such a spike in auto thefts. Observers suggest a variety of factors may be in play. For instance, Wisconsin's cold winters, because perpetrators sometimes steal cars left running to warm up. There's also a hypothesis that thieves are taking more risks because of a policy police adopted a few years ago, scaling back high-speed chases. The Milwaukee Police Department was not available to comment for this story. Tolkan adds that word has gotten around that some cars are pretty easy to steal.

"A few older GM cars, some older Honda and Toyotas, and a fair number of older Jeep-Dodge-Chrysler products. If someone knows how to do it, they can steal a car in a matter of 15 seconds," Tolkan says.

It's estimated that there are more than 4,000 such cars in the greater Milwaukee area.

Manager Aaron Herrera of Midas Milwaukee on W. Wisconsin Ave. says because certain makes and models have become popular among car thieves, some owners get hit more than once. Herrera says the cost of repairs depends on the extent of the damage, and sometimes exceeds the value of the vehicle.

"It can vary anywhere from $290-$800," Herrera says.

AAA Wisconsin has been keeping watch on the rise in auto thefts. The company sells car insurance. Spokesman Nick Jarmusz says the spike can affect how much AAA's customers end up paying for their policies.

"Any amount that an insurance company has to pay out, it has to make back up through its revenue sources, which are the premiums that they collect," Jarmusz says.

AAA is urging people to take steps to lower the chance of having their car stolen. Jarmusz says the ideas aren't new, but bear repeating.

"Make sure you're locking your vehicle every time you park it. It seems like kind of a no brainer, but it's still something that we hear often about that people's cars are stolen and it's because it wasn't even locked to begin with," Jarmusz says.

In addition to such reminders, AAA has been working to reduce the chance of theft by partnering with Milwaukee police and ADAMM. They've been holding clinics to install "kill switches" for free, in older vehicles most likely to be stolen. The devices prevent a car from being hotwired. So far the groups have installed the kill switches in about 600 of the older cars.

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