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BY KATIE THISDELL
It may sound like a no-brainer: Lock your car, or lose your valuables.
But Stafford County Sheriff Charles Jett says that's just the reminder that people need, especially around the holidays when "shoppers" aren't just browsing the county's stores--they're also swiping from cars in parking lots and on neighborhood streets.
"It's simple but we knew from the very beginning that we could influence the numbers greatly if we could convince the community to help us out," Jett said.
This month, the Sheriff's Office is pushing the "Take it, Hide it, Lock it or Lose it" campaign.
Residents may remember seeing that message over the summer, on flashing signs on busy roads or on bumper stickers on deputies' cars.
At that time, Jett said the department looked for every possible way to reach out to the community--and then some. They placed signs in the hardest-hit neighborhoods and sent information to homeowners associations. They established neighborhood watch groups and aggressively monitored pawnshops. For 60 days, the Sheriff's Office did everything it could think of.
And the effort seems to have paid off.
In July, the number of reported thefts from vehicles in Stafford dropped to 22, from 51 the month before. The numbers stayed low in August and September, with 36 and 32 reports.
Meanwhile, in nearby Spotsylvania County, the number of thefts from cars in the summer months, when Stafford rolled out its campaign, were the highest to date in 2012.
In the city of Fredericksburg, June was by far the hardest-hit month, with 40 reported thefts, compared to no more than 15 in any other month.
In Stafford, crime analyst Jacquelin Graham says the numbers have been creeping back up.
The hardest-hit neighborhoods (with three or more reports last month) were Leeland Heights, Leeland Station, Potomac Run Farm and Grafton Village, along with commercial areas on Garrisonville Road and U.S. 17.
Of course, many crimes go unreported. Sometimes officers find property on a suspect that hadn't originally been reported as stolen.
For example, if something is worth less than $100, a victim may not feel the need to report the theft.
Conservative estimates show that locally, there are at least twice as many thefts from cars as reported; nationally, that increases to five times as many, Graham said.
But all the minor thefts add up. Three thieves working together and targeting 10 cars each in a few hours can bring in more than $2,000, Jett said.
"That's much more profit than an armed robbery at a convenience store," Jett said.
The likely suspects are young adults, some who come from outside the region to go "shopping," as the crime has been named.
The "Take it, Hide it, Lock it or Lose it" campaign will be advertised in the same ways as previously, including with posters, message boards and newsletters.
The Sheriff's Office also will use its bait car heavily to deter thefts. The unidentified car, which was obtained from a drug seizure, is decked out with all the bells and whistles of a bait car. Sometimes it'll be locked and sometimes it'll have valuables in it. But once someone tries to open it up, they'll be stopped.
"It's a challenge to the community that it's not just mom and pop's car--it's ours, too," Jett said.
Katie Thisdell: 540/735-1975
A self-reporting system was developed for a website that enables a victim of a theft (valued at less than $200) to report it online.
At staffordsheriff.com, look for "Report an Incident" under Quick Links on the homepage.