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Auto thefts are up, but is a Missouri law to blame?

Updated: 2013-03-06T13:24:03Z

By TONY RIZZO

The Kansas City Star

Call it the rule of unintended consequences.

A change in Missouri law designed to make it easier to dispose of older, junk cars without a title is being blamed by some police officials for an increase in stolen vehicles.

Police in the St. Louis area say they have seen a big surge in stolen vehicle reports since the law pertaining to vehicles 10 years old or older took effect in August.

And investigators in other parts of the state say they have noticed a similar trend.

“We have definitely seen an increase in the thefts of older cars,” said Brad Greiner, who oversees western Missouri as a senior special agent for the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

The new law allows for the sale of “inoperable” vehicles 10 years or older to salvage yards. The seller does not have to have the vehicle’s title but must provide a photo ID. The dealer purchasing the vehicle must first check an online database to make sure there are no liens.

The buyer then has 10 days to submit transaction paperwork to the Missouri Department of Revenue, and that information is entered into a database of junked and salvaged vehicles, according to a department spokesman.

“That 10 days is our biggest problem,” Greiner said.

Salvage yards usually crush the cars soon after purchasing them, he said.

“Even if we get a hit (on a stolen vehicle) the car would be long gone at that point,” Greiner said.

Officials with the Missouri Highway Patrol said that since the law took effect, thefts of the 10 most commonly stolen makes of vehicles have increased for vehicles aged a decade or older.

However, Capt. Tim Hull said the patrol doesn’t have enough data to draw any conclusions about the effect of the changed law.

And though Kansas City police noted a 5 percent increase in stolen auto reports in 2012, they say they have not noticed a connection between the law and vehicle thefts.

But Sgt. Tom Naughton of the St. Louis County Police Department’s auto theft unit has no doubt.

“Absolutely,” Naughton said of the link between the law and his department’s 37 percent increase in the thefts of vehicles older than 10 years.

The Department of Revenue says that law enforcement agencies can request the sales records filed with the department as part of an investigation.

Naughton said that when he called to check stolen auto reports against the Department of Revenue’s database, he was told he would have to go to Jefferson City and go through the information himself.

The Department of Revenue said it does not have statistics on stolen vehicles. And because those sales forms did not exist before the law took effect Aug. 28, the department doesn’t have any information to compare with previous years, said spokesman Ted Farnen.

“The department does play a role in processing the bills of sale from such transactions, but the department has no comment or speculation about the legislation that created the new law,” Farnen said.

The law was meant to help people, particularly in rural areas, get rid of old or abandoned vehicles.

“It was done with good intent,” said Brent Butler, government affairs director of the Missouri Insurance Information Service. “But I can see where it would be attractive to car thieves to make a vehicle inoperable and sell it for junk.”

Naughton said thieves can make several hundred dollars by selling a stolen vehicle.

A clue to the trend in older vehicle thefts may be found in statistics compiled by the Highway Patrol.

Auto thefts reports increased from 2011 to 2012 statewide and in Kansas City and St. Louis. But while the number of stolen autos increased, the overall value of those vehicles decreased, according to the statistics.

In 2011, the 15,291 motor vehicles reported stolen in Missouri were worth a combined $85.6 million, according to the Highway Patrol statistics.

Last year, with 16,106 reported thefts, the overall value was $84.9 million, the statistics show.

According to the patrol’s numbers for Kansas City, there were 3,385 stolen auto reports in 2011 and 3,531 in 2012.

Despite the increase, the overall value of stolen vehicles decreased by about $1.1 million.

“That’s because older, junk cars are being stolen,” Naughton said.

From an insurance perspective, Butler said the thefts of older vehicles are unlikely to impact auto insurance rates. That’s because many people only have liability collision insurance on vehicles of that age, he said.

“I don’t see a dramatic increase in insurance rates,” he said.

Greiner of the insurance crime bureau said that though the biggest problems now seem to be in the St. Louis area, he doesn’t think that will last.

“I would imagine that Kansas City will be seeing problems similar to St. Louis,” he said.

To reach Tony Rizzo, call 816-234-4435 or send email to trizzo@kcstar.com.

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