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Gas prices not a steal but cars are

April 21, 2005

Marisa O'Neil

Rising gas prices, which reached another record high Wednesday, may

have an unexpected side effect -- more stolen cars.

The city saw 31% more cars stolen last month compared to the same

time period last year. And while the method of operation for car

thieves varies from joy riding to fraud, the high price of gas seems

to be contributing to the increase, police said.

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Sometimes, thieves are stealing cars just to get from point A to

point B, Costa Mesa Det. Mitch Phillips said.

In one recent case, Phillips said, someone stole a man's pickup

truck while he was fueling up at a local station. Realizing his phone

was still in his truck, the owner called his own phone.

"The guy answered the phone and talked to him," Phillips said. "He

said, 'I just basically need a ride to Santa Ana. You'll find it in

this area when I'm done,' and told him where to find it."

Sure enough, Santa Ana police tracked down the truck as promised,

Phillips said.

Last month, 42 cars were reported stolen in Costa Mesa. During the

same period last year, 32 were reported.

Usually the number reported peaks around 15 or 20 a month,

Phillips said.

Costa Mesa often sees an increase during school holidays, he said.

Many schools' spring recesses coincided with the latest spike in car

thefts, he said. The thefts don't appear to be part of an organized

ring, he said.

About 60% of the cars stolen are used for joyriding or for

transportation, Phillips said. They are often dumped once the gas

runs out, and they are found in Costa Mesa, Santa Ana, San Diego or

further afield, he said.

In March of this year, 12 stolen cars were recovered in the city

and another 15 in other cities.

Roughly another 20% of thieves steal cars, then strip them and

sell their parts, he estimated. The rest steal for fraudulent

purchases, he said.

Increasingly, more sophisticated car thieves are targeting car

dealerships, especially those with plenty of gas-guzzling SUVs that

are slow to move off lots right now, Phillips said. But rather than

sneak in and steal cars right off the lot, they apply with fraudulent

credit.

In one case, a purchaser bought an SUV after supplying only basic

personal information, a reference from an employer and a check from a

third party, Phillips said. The check bounced and the dealer reported

the car stolen when they couldn't track down the buyer.

Those cars often end up south of the border in Mexico, where large

SUVs and trucks are popular he said.

"Fraud and identity theft is an increasing issue," said Paul

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