Nothing of value was taken.... or was it?
October 19, 2009 2:23 PM   Subscribe

Why would someone break into a bunch of cars but ignore valuables only to rifle through paperwork?

Last weekend, my car was broken into (well, it's possible I may have left it unlocked, though that's a very RARE thing for me). No windows were broken, though, so I either left it unlocked, or they used a slim jim.

A few interesting things:

1) I park in a gated lot behind my building, so someone had to hop the fence to get in.
2) Nothing of value was really present in my car, but not even what few things of value I did have were taken (a few CDs, a phone charger, etc)...
3) Whoever it was rifled through my glove box, my console and took out my (unused) ash tray, and left all of them open. My car is pretty messy, so they could've easily made it look like they were never there with about 10 seconds effort.

I thought nothing of this at first. I figured they didnt' find anything of sufficient value and moved on, and while it bothered me that my stuff was rifled through, I figured there was no sense worrying about it.

However, I'm on an email list for my local neighborhood, and just got an email noting that this same thing has happened to several other cars in the past week in their area - just a few blocks from where I'm at.

So - why would someone do this? My first thought was ID theft, but I don't think getting my auto insurance card is going to do you a whole lot of good. My social security number shouldn't be on there. It's also not on my license, but I keep my license with me at all times anyway, it wouldn't be in my car.

Has this happened to anyone else? Have you ever figured out what it was the thieves were after?
posted by twiggy to Grab Bag (27 answers total)
Identity theft?
posted by Solomon at 2:24 PM on October 19, 2009

(As in, the thief doesn't know what's in the car, and is taking a chance.)
posted by Solomon at 2:25 PM on October 19, 2009

Looking for cash? Some thiefs just want the quick cash and can't be bothered with selling your "valuable" stuff to get it.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 2:26 PM on October 19, 2009

CDs and a phone charger probably aren't worth the effort to sell on Craigslist. I imagine your thief was looking for a GPS device, iPod, wad of cash, or similar.
posted by phoenixy at 2:29 PM on October 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

>Looking for cash? Some thiefs just want the quick cash and can't be bothered with selling your "valuable" stuff to get it.
I agree. A friend had this exact scenario happen. He asked around and everyone lost cash (bills and coins), cigarettes, Canadian Tire money. All the tools, clothes, electronics, etc. were left.
posted by philfromhavelock at 2:29 PM on October 19, 2009

Response by poster: To be clear, I knew none of my stuff was "valuable" enough to take... but hearing that this has happened a ton with other cars is what has me wondering about ID theft...

It's interesting that a few people have all replied with the cash thing though.. I NEVER leave cash in my car like that, and didn't think that enough people did that this was an exercise worth the risk/time for a thief.. perhaps it is...
posted by twiggy at 2:30 PM on October 19, 2009

Tinfoil-hat time: Might be a long shot, but are you or any of your neighbour's managing or running their own company? Low grade Industrial Espionage?

Or yeah.. identity theft.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 2:33 PM on October 19, 2009

I would think that people interested in ID theft would want to steal massive numbers of credit cards via a computer, and not individually via people's cars. I could be wrong though.
posted by dfriedman at 2:34 PM on October 19, 2009

This video shot by a guy breaking into cars is instructive. There are some cars he rifles through, finding nothing of value. He's obviously not concerned about covering his tracks.
posted by adamrice at 2:38 PM on October 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

A lot of people leave a $20 bill or two in the glove compartment in case of emergencies. Someone may have done a crude break-in (or happened to try your door on the one day you forget to lock it) and looked for a quick payout.
posted by arco at 2:39 PM on October 19, 2009

Response by poster: adamrice: wow, I saw that video at least a couple/few years ago and forgot about it... thanks for the reminder... makes me sad to watch that...
posted by twiggy at 2:50 PM on October 19, 2009

If that gated lot is used by many people then maybe, and this is just a big maybe, someone wanted to smoke, couldn't find a lighter, saw that your car was not locked and used the cigarette lighter?

I only suggest this because you mentioned the ash tray.
posted by edmz at 2:56 PM on October 19, 2009

Forget my crazy idea, I missed the part about "a bunch of cars".
posted by edmz at 3:08 PM on October 19, 2009

Nthing cash-- the open ashtray really seals it, since lots of people throw their change in there. If it was full of quarters it could add up to a lot for a homeless person. Pretty sure you left your car unlocked, since people who open cars with slim jims do so in order to steal the whole car. Don't do that anymore.
posted by InfidelZombie at 3:15 PM on October 19, 2009

I once had a break-in where the thief walked around a friend's xbox and controllers* in order to steal his jar of pennies, total value about $10.

The police said some burglars are only interested in cash. It's possible if there had been other, higher value items that they would have stolen them, but I foiled that plan by not owning anything worth stealing.

* Back when the xbox was a new console And it's possible there weren't enough people to lift the xbox, amiright?
posted by Mike1024 at 3:21 PM on October 19, 2009

My hubby's car was broken into not long ago. They ripped out his car stereo but left the $25.00 gift card to TEXAS ROADHOUSE just sitting there. I mean, WTH?

I think the thieves are very tuned into what product they want . . . and bypass other valuable things. It's like when you're walking along the beach looking for sea glass or shark's teeth - you are so focused on only "seeing" those items that you completely bypass the trunk of gold coins sitting there.

Like others have said, they might have just been looking for cash and were only in tune with finding cash, being blind to other valuables.

or identity theft.
posted by Sassyfras at 3:39 PM on October 19, 2009

I would think that people interested in ID theft would want to steal massive numbers of credit cards via a computer, and not individually via people's cars. I could be wrong though.

Not everyone can do that, though. In fact, only two groups of people really can 1) People who see that data as part of their jobs, or 2) hackers. On the other hand, anyone can grabs some documents and do a 1-off ID theft. That's obviously a lot riskier, but for desperate people it wouldn't be to bad.

I think looking for change/cash/etc where their main goals.
posted by delmoi at 4:04 PM on October 19, 2009

Did the thief take your car manual by chance? I remember a Car Talk within the last year or so in which a woman from Chicago called in to ask the same question. Apparently someone had broken into her car, ignored the valuables that were in plain sight (CDs, etc), and stole her car manual. Tom and Ray couldn't think of an obvious answer and were confounded that a thief would want to steal a manual from a Ford car.

I have to agree with the other posters, though, that the break-in was probably an attempt at theft - identity or otherwise.
posted by Coyote at the Dog Show at 4:39 PM on October 19, 2009

I'm voting cash as well. Twice, I've had cars broken into, quickly & opportunistically, when parked in bad areas.

Both times the ashtray was left open (in addition to the glovebox obviously having been rifled through). Plenty of people leave odd coins in their ashtrays, if they're not smokers.

What the hell would an identity thief hope to find in an ashtray, FFS? A USB stick?!??
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:55 PM on October 19, 2009

The best recipe for theft involves low risk and high reward. That means not having to have the stolen item on your person for any length of time. Nobody has the serial numbers for the paper money in their car; grab the money, get out of the car unseen, sit on the curb five feet away, get searched when the police show up, and you still won't go to jail without a witness. Good luck with having those kinds of results with an mp3 player that has playlists on it the original owner can recite from memory. Plus, having cash means nothing to sell.

The lowest risk of all involves an accidentally-unlocked car. If you've ever casually stuck a finger in a coin return as you walked by, you know the basic mentality of a thief who walks down the street casually pulling at door handles to see if any open, then rifling through for a quick hit of cash.
posted by davejay at 5:36 PM on October 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm gonna go ahead and nth identity theft. In some states, your social is on your car insurance. Some people leave bills in their car (and a messy car is more likely to contain those kinds of things). My brother (in Ohio at the time) took his phone bill to the grocery store to pay it and left the stub in his front seat while at the mall; someone broke in, took it (and some CDs) and forgot about it. 6 months later he was being billed by SBC in Minnesota and had to go through a million and one hoops with the police, feds, SBC, and his credit bureau to get cleared. He remembered about that time his phone bill was stolen and it all came together, but he just didn't think anything of it at the time except that it was a nuisance. ALWAYS BE VERY CAREFUL about what you leave in your car; leave nothing that you want to see again.
posted by cachondeo45 at 5:51 PM on October 19, 2009

Identity theft really isn't likely. Random street-crime folks don't generally deal in identity theft, and as you said, the kind of papers you find in cars aren't usually the most useful. Your trash would be more interesting, but even that really isn't. Identity thieves don't randomly go door-to-door. They work larger-scale and mostly online. Sure, a person who breaks into cars might take advantage if they did find something they could exploit, but that's not their main goal.

They're just looking for cash, or, believe it or not... car keys. Some people leave spare keys in their cars. There's a pretty big payoff if you just randomly search through cars and one of them happens to have the keys in it. Taking whatever cash you find in the search is an easy bonus. Trying to sell CDs and phone chargers and what-not isn't worth the effort.

But in all likelihood, it really is just someone looking for quick cash. I could walk down a street and just try opening 20 car doors. Even if I only come away with $10 in change, the effort was minimal. Hopping a gate into a lot with 20 cars isn't much more of an effort, and hey, they're all in one place with a false sense of security. More likely to leave their doors unlocked.
posted by team lowkey at 6:06 PM on October 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's probably identity theft like everyone else said, but we've got a mentally ill person in the area who has been known to take things from outside one house and leave them in the driveway of another, and if the house is open, will occasionally go in to take a shower.
posted by IndigoRain at 9:14 PM on October 19, 2009

Money. Money and drugs.
posted by dirtdirt at 9:38 PM on October 19, 2009

Response by poster: Wow, we seem very polarized between ID theft and just cash...

I'll investigate further into what was taken from my glove box (I've been abhorrently nonchalant about this, I will admit) and report back if my manual, insurance card etc are missing.

I'm siding more toward just cash at this point though.
posted by twiggy at 8:31 AM on October 20, 2009

About a year ago I had my car broken into (window smashed, faceplate ripped off of the cd player rendering it useless both to me and the thief). Since then I mostly leave it unlocked since nothing inside my car is anywhere near as expensive as a new window. Twice I've come back to the car and it's obvious it has been rifled through.

The first time, this is what was taken: a half a box of tissues, some spare change from the cup holder, and some bungee cords for tying stuff to the roof. Not a big deal. If someone enters a car and steals tissues, I figure they probably needed the tissues more than I did.

The second time, however, the glove box was left open and my registration and insurance information were taken. I thought maybe identity theft, maybe not, but either way someone out there has all my car/name/address information and I made a police report. The (Chicago) cop's theory was that they saw the little plastic sleeve the info was stuffed in, figured it might have cash in it, and grabbed it and ran off, only to discard it later when it proved to not be cash. My dad asked a cop in Georgia what he thought was up, and that guy thought someone might be doing legwork to commit a bigger crime in the future, so to check every day and make sure I still have a license plate on my car.

The idea with that is that someone would steal my plates (or my car, I guess) and go commit a crime in another car but use my information. Insurance fraud or something like that. Seems very unlikely to me (and to the cop I made the police report with). I'm going with the cash theory. Sorry, that ended up being way longer than I intended.)
posted by phunniemee at 10:27 AM on October 20, 2009

Eh, I may as well add some first-hand reporting. Maybe it will help someone.

I have "friends" who used to steal from cars when we were teenagers. They'd drive around late at night in nice quiet suburban neighborhoods, and just check out all the cars parked along the street. They would scan for what looked like particularly valuable targets. Nice cars could have money and electronics, trucks might have tools, cars that clearly had a lot of stuff in them could have anything... sunglasses, CDs, discmans. You'd keep an eye out for things that were in clear sight, like a radar detector or a briefcase or backpack. Skip any cars that have an alarm light.

If they found a street that had what seemed like a good number of targets, they'd come back later and just walk down the street trying doors. If they got in, they'd check the glove box and pockets, pop the trunk and see what's in there. Just throw anything of possible value into a bag and sort it out later. The whole thing would take maybe 30 seconds, and then on to the next one. Quick and quiet. You could clear out a entire street in under ten minutes, before anyone in the neighborhood had much of a chance to figure out what was going on, much less get the cops out there. The get-away car would be parked around the block, so no one who happened to see them could report the vehicle.

This was all just petty theft. They weren't fencing anything, just keeping cash and things they liked. Easy targets for a quick reward.

Then there were the crimes of opportunity. Maybe you find a garage door opener, and no one seems to be home. Maybe you find some car keys. It's not often you get a chance to crash a truck into a mailbox. If you see something that is clearly valuable, like a wallet or suitcase, or a particularly nice stereo, maybe it's time to go ahead and smash a window and call it a night. Maybe you aren't even out on a spree, but you're out of cigarettes, so you try a few cars and see if you get lucky.

But mostly it's just quick grabs; cheap stuff. These aren't criminal minds looking for a big score. They are equivalent to shoplifters... you see something you want and you take it. There's no grand scheme or plan farther than that. Certainly nothing high risk. The thought of them trying their hand at identity theft is practically laughable. The closest they would get is if they found a credit card, they might fill up the gas tank at the end of the night. And then burn the card so they wouldn't get caught with it.
posted by team lowkey at 11:33 AM on October 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

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