Drive to the nearest mall. Hand your car keys to a stranger, and tell him to hop in and take a ride.
That would be crazy, right?
But every day, dozens of people throughout the metropolitan area essentially do that. By leaving their cars running and unattended, they invite criminals to help themselves.
And plenty of criminals oblige.
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Police conservatively estimate that thieves have swiped at least 200 unattended running vehicles this winter in the Kansas City area. Some thieves troll residential areas looking for them. Others stake out convenience stores or other places drivers are likely to leave a car running.
The thieves call it “puffing,” as in the look of exhaust fumes coming from running vehicles, and it spikes in the winter when the comfort of a warmed-up vehicle trumps common sense for many drivers.
“No matter how often we warn people not to do it, people continue to do it,” said Overland Park Police Officer Gary Mason. “They think, ‘It won’t happen to me.’ A lot of people can tell them otherwise.”
Last Monday in Overland Park, it happened to four motorists during one 75-minute stretch. Thursday morning, thieves snatched five more vehicles. Since New Year’s Day, Overland Park has seen at least 25 such thefts.
And it can happen anywhere.
Tuesday morning, a couple in Merriam learned the hard way how fast thieves can strike and how potentially dangerous the crime can be.
They were moving into an apartment in the 7200 block of Eby Drive when the woman left her car for a few seconds to speak to her boyfriend in another vehicle.
A thief jumped into her idling car and took off — with her 2-year-old son inside. Fortunately, Lenexa police found the uninjured boy in the abandoned and still-running car about seven minutes later.
Across the state line in Kansas City, from Dec. 1 to Jan. 26, police took 179 reports of vehicles being stolen after being left running or with keys left inside. That averages to about three such thefts every day.
“It’s a bigger problem than people know,” said Kansas City Police Detective Michael Helvie.
He noted that the day after that reporting period ended, drivers reported five vehicles stolen in Kansas City within a 21/2 hour period. Four had been left running and unattended.
The crimes almost always happen in the early morning when thieves know people with real jobs are getting ready to leave for work, police said.
“Most crimes are crimes of opportunity,” said Officer Tom Gentry, an Independence police spokesman. “And if someone presents an opportunity, more than likely someone will take advantage of it.”
Kansas City Police Sgt. Damon Hayes likened the thieves to gnats that seemingly appear out of nowhere when you dig into fresh fruit.
“I don’t know where they come from,” he said.
Sometimes, three or four thieves drive around together looking for running cars, Helvie said. When they spot one, they drop off a person to take it.
In other cases, thieves loiter outside convenience stores or gas stations waiting for an opportunity.
They got one when a 39-year-old Blue Springs man stopped last month at a convenience store to grab some breakfast. He turned off the truck but left the keys inside.
“I wasn’t in the store for no more than 30 seconds,” said the man, who asked that his name not be used. “I come out, and there is a guy in the driver’s seat backing up, and I’m like, that ain’t right.”
When the truck stalled, the victim ran out and confronted the thief, who jumped into another car. The victim attempted to reach in and stop him but got dragged several feet before he fell to the pavement and briefly lost consciousness.
Though the thief escaped, a piece of his car’s door panel fell off. That evidence helped police arrest two Independence men they think may be linked to a rash of vehicle thefts from Blue Springs driveways and convenience stores. Investigators recovered 91 keys, stolen credit cards and checkbooks.
Prosecutors charged Sean Marriott, 27, with tampering. Warren C. McGuire, 28, faces stealing and assault charges. Police are continuing to investigate.
During a three-day stretch in early January, thieves snatched 11 vehicles in Blue Springs, including six in one day.
“Just because you are at a convenience store and there are other people around doesn’t mean your vehicle is safe,” said Sgt. Joe Farana with the Blue Springs Police Department.
Police say the thieves take the vehicles for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they use them for a quick free ride on a cold morning. Other times, thieves swipe them for use in other crimes, such as robberies or burglaries.
Some take vehicles straight to scrap yards where they can make a quick $400 to $500. Older cars particularly are attractive for scrapping because Missouri law doesn’t require sellers to provide a title if the vehicle is more than 10 years old, Helvie said.
Many drivers may not realize that they are breaking the law by leaving unattended cars running.
In Kansas, it is a violation of state law. In many cities, including Kansas City, it is a city ordinance violation. However, Kansas City police said they can’t write tickets for violations on private property.
Remote control starters that allow people to start their cars from a distance while the vehicle’s doors remain locked can deter would-be criminals, police said.
But the best way to avoid your car being snatched is to never stray from it while the engine is running, even for just a second.
“It makes an easy target,” said Kansas City Police Sgt. Mike Foster.
As for the man who had the encounter with the thief in Blue Springs, he said that he and a co-worker, who owned the truck, no longer leave the keys in the vehicle.
“It was like second nature just to shut it off and walk right on in,” he said. “I didn’t have one thought of anybody taking it.”
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