Finding their way into thieves' hands

Visibility, access make GPS devices a hot commodity for burglars

Email|Print| Text size + By Eric Moskowitz, Globe Staff
November 23, 2007

After the first few reports came in about thieves breaking car windows to steal GPS units in Burlington two years ago, Officer James Tigges mentioned the incidents at a monthly meeting of the Massachusetts Association of Crime Analysts.

At the time, none of the other law enforcement officers saw a trend. Now everyone is talking about stolen GPS devices.

"Over the last two years, it's gone crazy," Tigges said, noting that Burlington police received 119 reports of stolen GPS units through early October this year, a sixfold increase over the same period in 2006.

Indeed, with more and more drivers buying GPS units - and leaving the devices or, at least, their cradles in view in the windshield - such thefts have become commonplace in towns across the region, police say. Thieves have been shattering windows, and sometimes opening unlocked doors, to pluck the receivers from vehicles in office, mall, and motel parking lots, and even on residential streets.

"It's just rampant," said Tewksbury police Lieutenant James McKenna, of what some are calling the new crime of opportunity.

Cities and towns along Route 128 and Interstate 93 have been hit hardest, with some receiving reports of a dozen or more thefts a month of the devices, which typically sell for roughly $300 new but range in price from $150 to $2,000, depending on the features.

"Everybody adjacent to a highway is vulnerable," said Lieutenant Christopher Neville, a Wilmington police detective.

The stolen devices occasionally show up at pawn shops, but police say they are more likely being swapped for cash or drugs on the street. With a quick turnaround for the stolen units and little chance of recovery, police are instead advising owners not only to take GPS units with them from their cars when parking, but also to remove the cradles from view and wipe the tell-tale suction-cup marks from windshields.

The trend has meant a steady replacement business for area auto-glass dealers and GPS sellers, and a growing expense, time drain, and paperwork hassle for motorists, insurance companies, and police departments.

Peter Socorelis of Woburn Glass Co. said his family-owned business now leaves space open on the Monday schedule to replace side windows shattered during weekend break-ins, many of them GPS-related. "There's five to 10 parts replaced every week, and we're just a little company," he said.

For years, thieves have been breaking into cars to steal valuables, especially consumer electronics, but GPS units make for particularly easy smash-and-grab bait. Because they clip into cradles, the units can be easily lifted, unlike car stereos. And because those cradles are attached to windshields, thieves who might otherwise have peered into cars to look for laptops or iPods can see GPS units without straining.

"They don't even have to get out of the car. They're just looking into windows" as they drive through parking lots, said police Lieutenant James Hashem of Andover, where reported car break-ins increased threefold in September and October over the same period last year.

The most common units are designed to be portable and are about the size of a baseball, which partly accounts for their popularity with consumers.

"By the same token that portability makes them extremely easy to steal and very hard for us to track," Hashem said. "So what we tell people is, number one, you don't leave your valuables in your car, but, more importantly, you don't take a $300, $400, $500 device, stick it to your windshield, and then leave your car unattended."

In Lexington this year, police received reports of 40 stolen GPS units, and 100 total car break-ins, from January through October; during the same stretch last year, the police received just three reports of stolen navigation devices and 41 total car break-ins, Lieutenant Detective Joseph O'Leary said.

In neighboring Woburn, police this year received reports of 160 GPS units stolen from cars through early last week, compared with 32 of the devices stolen all of last year, Detective Thomas Callahan said.

"There should be a little flashing light on it that says, 'Steal me! Steal me!' " Callahan said, joking. The thefts have become so common that Woburn recently sent a flier to offices, apartment complexes, and other locations urging people to remove all valuables from their cars and park in well-lighted areas.

The GPS units, which rely on signals from a network of global positioning satellites to pinpoint locations and give real-time directions, have soared in popularity recently.

Garmin, the leading brand in the United States, sold 2.69 million units this year in the third quarter alone, said Jessica Myers, a company spokeswoman. (The sales figure is led by the automotive/mobile unit but also includes devices for boats, planes, and other uses.)

For the automotive unit, third-quarter revenue more than doubled this year, to $519 million, Myers said.

Because the devices receive signals but don't send them, their locations cannot be traced when they have been stolen.

Garmin offers the same prevention recommendations as police departments and encourages consumers to record serial numbers - in the event units are recovered - or use electronic PINs to lock devices. That will not prevent theft, but it will turn them into expensive paperweights, Myers said. "You'd have the satisfaction of knowing nobody was using it."

Like cellphones and e-mail, GPS is a technology that users say they can't imagine living without.

Charlie Hoover, who travels the region to make computer-support visits to businesses and homes for Burlington-based Geek Housecalls, used to drive from site to site with a fistful of Google Maps printouts. Last spring, he caved and bought a Garmin unit for roughly $400.

"I very quickly became addicted," Hoover said. He also quickly became victimized. Hoover had his Garmin stolen from his car early last summer after a thief spotted the empty cradle in the windshield, broke the lock on Hoover's Geek Housecalls Scion, and fished around for the GPS device.

Hoover bought a replacement and made a habit of taking the device with him and also removing the cradle whenever he parked the car. But three weeks ago, he forgot.

Distracted by preparations for a Saturday night Halloween party at his Washington Crossing apartment, he said, he simply tucked the device in a side panel and left the cradle in the windshield. Overnight, someone smashed the curbside window and stole the Garmin.

Hoover's repeated frustration - and a companywide edict to leave no valuables in Geek Housecalls cars - made him vow to keep his new GPS unit with him at all times.

But he wasn't the only one frustrated by the Oct. 28 incident. In September and October, the Woburn Police Department responded to an average of five GPS-theft reports a week.

Pity the responding officer, said Hoover. "I'm pretty sure if he got one of these guys in a dark alley, he'd beat the [heck] out of them for the paperwork."

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at

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