After Amanda VanWagenen finished her shift as a server in a Rockridge restaurant last week, she walked outside to her car to drive home, only to discover that it wasn’t there.
“At first, I thought I might have forgotten where I actually parked it,” she said. “So then I was just wandering around, looking at street signs and trying to figure it out.”
The car had been with VanWagenen for two years, and she brought it with her when she moved to Oakland this September to make it easier to get to different hiking trails. The white 1986 Toyota 4Runner was older than she was, and the previous owner had removed the front bumper and replaced it with a metal grille, and added extra-large tires for off-road driving. “It had this classic tough-guy look to it,” VanWagenen said.
When she realized she hadn’t just parked it in the wrong spot, VanWagenen understood the truth: her car had been stolen.
It was hardly an isolated case. The same week VanWagenen lost her Toyota, 156 other car thefts were reported across the city: a rate of nearly one per hour.
According to a recent report by the National Insurance Crime Bureau, the San Francisco Bay Area is the sixth-worst metropolitan area in the nation for car theft, with Oakland faring particularly badly. Within the Bay Area, people who lived in Oakland in 2012 were nearly three times more likely to have a vehicle stolen than residents of San Francisco, according to crime and population data from the two cities. And the trend is only getting worse. According to data from the Oakland Police Department, the number of car thefts jumped another 14 percent compared to last year.
One of the most common ways to steal a car is to use a key that has been shaved down, according to Eric Lewis, an Oakland police captain. Most cars today come equipped with “smart keys,” which have a chip that transmits a signal to the ignition and prevents the use of the shaved-down-key method. The chip was introduced in 1997 and became common only in recent years.
“A lot of older cars are just very easy to steal,” Lewis said. “My dad had an old Toyota truck, and I’m pretty sure he could have started it up with a Popsicle stick.”
According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, the most-stolen car in California last year was the 1994 Honda Accord, followed by the 1998 Honda Civic and the 1991 Toyota Camry.
Frank Scafidi, spokesman for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, said that once an older car is stolen, it is often stripped for parts. Because parts from an older car will usually work for newer versions of the same model, thieves can sell the parts to an auto repair center that may or may not know about the parts’ origins.
According to Scafidi, thieves will also sometimes steal a car just to get from point A to point B, or to commit another crime, like a robbery. Drug use occasionally plays a role as well. “That’s how people will get the money to buy drugs,” Scafidi said. “You need a fix, and stealing a car and selling it for $100 will get you through the next day or two.”
Once a car is reported stolen, the license plate number is entered into a national database. Patrol cars in Oakland come equipped with a camera that scans license plates and then sends the data to a computer. If the camera sights a license plate that corresponds to a stolen car, police are notified immediately. Apart from that, though, “there’s not a lot of follow-up investigation,” Lewis said.
Though Lewis cites “resource issues” as one reason why the police department does little to investigate car thefts, the department does have a plan to distribute approximately 100 clubs to Oakland residents, and to educate owners of older cars of about the need for extra security. The news comes too late, however, for VanWagenen.
“The only reason I’m bummed out about it is that I liked taking the car to go hiking so much,” she said. “For now, I’ve just been learning the bus routes really well.”