Colorado Springs police reported a decrease in stolen vehicles last month but the crime remains the city's fastest-growing, according to Chief Pete Carey.
Carey said vehicle theft has increased 20 percent this year. In January, the Police Department created a five man unit dedicated to the crime. The unit includes three detectives, a sergeant and an investigator with the Colorado State Patrol.
Detective Joe Frabbiele, a member of the unit, said the practice of "puffing," in which drivers leave their vehicles running and unattended in cold weather, is a contributing factor in the rise of thefts.
"We saw more (thefts) last winter because of it," he said. "(On Thursday morning) we spent our time at two apartment complexes and ran into a dozen cars that were left running unattended. In half those cars, we actually waited five minutes or longer before a person would come back out."
Police say puffing violates a state law and is punishable by a fine of $75. During the Thursday morning patrol, Frabbiele said the unit gave drivers friendly warnings instead of citations.
Frabbiele said a third of stolen vehicles in the city have keys left in the ignition or elsewhere inside. He said police have a 75 percent recovery rate for stolen vehicles and a 50 percent arrest rate for suspects.
Vehicles generally are stolen not for money or drugs, but simply for the thrill of it, Frabbiele said.
"We've arrested folks that stole one car, dumped it in a particular neighborhood, stole another and dumped it, just so they're not caught," he said.
According to national statistics, the vehicle most commonly targeted by thieves is the 1996 Honda Accord. Frabbiele said the car is dependable, available in large numbers and able to be stolen quickly.
"(Thieves) have these things called jiggler keys," he said. "You use (them), you're in the car within a few seconds. You jiggle around the ignition, and off you go."
Frabbiele said the jiggler keys work only with mid-1990 model Hondas and not with later models.
Keeping unattended vehicles locked, and removing keys and other valuables from inside, will make your vehicle a much less inviting target for thieves, he said.
Frabbiele said reports of stolen vehicles decreased last month, proving that authorities are making progress in catching thieves and prosecuting them with stronger sentences.
Brian Malsom of Colorado Springs said he left his keys inside his truck when it was stolen and later totaled by a man last July.
"And until recently, I didn't know puffing was illegal, either," he said. "I was guilty of that, too. I have definitely learned my lesson since then. I'll never leave my keys in my (vehicle) again."
That's the message the police theft unit will try to spread during December when it works with local agencies and the group LockdownYourCar.org to educate people about puffing and the danger of leaving keys inside vehicles.
Pueblo police also are dealing with an increase in vehicle theft, partly because of puffing. The Pueblo County Sheriff's Office reports no increase. The El Paso County Sheriff's Office was gathering information on the subject.