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Is your car unlocked? Chattanooga auto crimes increased by 75% during the pandemic.

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Aug. 21—Auto thefts and burglaries have increased significantly in Chattanooga since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Chattanooga Police Department data.

The number of auto thefts and burglaries from autos combined went from 2,854 in 2019 to 5,003 in 2020, an increase of 75%.

As more people have returned to the office and their daily routines, fewer cars are being left parked for long periods of time, and auto crimes have decreased slightly this year compared to 2020. But the number of auto thefts and burglaries from January to July of 2021 was still 40% greater than the same period in 2019, according to Police Department data.

Sgt. Randy Raulston, the department’s auto crimes supervisor, said many of those crimes are committed by juveniles, who have been home rather than at school for much of the pandemic. It’s common for a group of juveniles to go through a neighborhood and check car by car for unlocked doors, he said.

“We’ve got plenty of video to back it up,” Raulston said.

He said home security cameras are very helpful in catching thieves, and investigators often knock on neighbors’ doors after a theft to check for potential footage.

To help address the increase in auto crimes, the police department introduced its “Lock it, hide it, hold it” campaign earlier this year to remind citizens to lock their cars when left unattended, hide valuables or take the items with them if they cannot be hidden.

Raulston said thieves are looking mainly for money, guns, laptops or other devices. Unless those items end up in a pawn shop, most are never recovered, but purses, personal items and IDs are often found discarded in a parking lot or by the side of a road, he said.

To increase the chances of valuable items being recovered, Raulston recommends writing down or taking photos of the serial numbers on those items.

One thing he stressed is that people should not leave guns in their cars.

Missionary Ridge resident Bill Reed backs up that recommendation, as he had a gun stolen from his car that has yet to be recovered. His car was broken into a second time, though nothing was missing. In both instances, the thieves broke a window to get inside the car, which made him think the gun-related decals on his car may have made him a target.

Another tip is to avoid hiding your laptop in a backpack that you leave in your car.

“Everyone knows if there’s a backpack sitting there, there’s probably a device,” said Chattanooga Police Department public information officer Sgt. Jeremy Eames.

It is also especially important people not leave one particular item in their cars — the keys, which make them an easy target for auto theft.

A review of Chattanooga stolen vehicle reports from July 2021 shows 45 out of 123 of the vehicles taken, or 37%, were easy targets because the keys were either left inside the vehicle or nearby. Of the 45 vehicles stolen with keys inside, five of those vehicles were also left running.

The area known by police as “Charlie sector” — Brainerd, East Brainerd, the Hamilton Place area, Highway 58 and Ooltewah — had the largest percentage of cars stolen with keys inside at 51%.

Raulston said auto thefts and burglaries are most common in areas with a lot of hotels or large apartment complexes, but stressed that residents of all areas should be vigilant in taking steps to prevent auto crimes.

“No one neighborhood is more prone to this than another,” Eames said. “It’s really random.”

Often a group of juveniles will pick a large neighborhood and spend two or three hours checking all the car doors in that neighborhood. That makes it appear as if one area of town is being targeted by thieves, when it’s actually just the same group of kids spending one night hitting all the cars in that neighborhood before moving on to another area, Eames said.

Contact Emily Crisman at ecrisman@timesfreepress.com.

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