Sarah Brooks had to do a double take when her son told her that the car was gone. One night in August, her 2013 Hyundai Sonata was stolen from the street in front of her house in Baltimore’s Frankford neighborhood.
What’s unsettling, Brooks said, is that the thieves were bold and took her property even though she and her neighbors have camera systems.
And they would come again.
Police recovered her car within the same week, and it was towed to an impound lot in terrible condition, with no gas, no oil and a broken window. But it was salvageable, so she paid to get it fixed. Within weeks, the thieves came back, broke another window and dismantled the ignition, trying unsuccessfully to get it started. She covered the car to protect it from rainy days. But thieves came back and took that, too.
“I always thought it was a nice block,” she said. “It was a great block, but when that happened it was scary.”
Brooks is one of thousands of Baltimoreans grappling with a disturbing trend of having a car stolen. Car thefts have skyrocketed this year at a rate unseen since the 1990s. As of Nov. 7, 9,523 auto theft incidents — car thefts or attempted auto thefts that can render cars heavily damaged and inoperable — were reported in the city, which is more than triple the number of cars stolen from the same time period last year.
More than 1,000 cars have been stolen in Baltimore every month since June.
Car thefts have become a pervasive issue nationwide after a vulnerability in certain Kia and Hyundai models was discovered and spread through TikTok and other social media in 2022. Videos showed people how to steal certain car models using a screwdriver and a USB charging cord within 30 seconds. A representative with the Maryland Vehicle Theft Prevention Council said certain models between 2010 and 2021 lack an anti-theft immobilizer that prevents a car from being started without the right key.
Hyundai sent millions of owners and leasers information for a software update and also shipped 40,000 steering wheel locks to more than 370 law enforcement agencies to distribute. In Baltimore, those actions weren’t enough, and the city joined more than a dozen other cities in suing Hyundai and Kia, saying that the companies “failed to keep up with industry standards.”
Baltimore has had a particularly rough year in 2023 compared to neighboring localities and other cities around the country. Washington, D.C., had a 117% increase in car thefts as of July 26. Philadelphia and Chicago reported increases of 102% and 121%, respectively. This year, car thefts in Baltimore City are up 229% through Oct. 28, according to the Baltimore Police Department. During the peak of the auto theft crisis in July, police responded to over 25 auto theft incidents per 10,000 residents, more, by far, than any other county in the state with recent data reviewed by The Banner.
Car thefts are also creating a ripple effect in other industries. One tow service company ran out of space this summer recovering stolen cars. Repair times for Kia and Hyundai cars have been slowed at shops because of backups with the manufacturers. Auto mechanics also have to get creative about how to protect cars on their lots waiting to be serviced. And people whose cars are stolen face longer wait times for insurance adjusters to assess damages and process claims. Even when adjusters do make their assessments, the car may end up a total loss to the owner because of the damage. More customers are heading into used-car dealerships to find inexpensive cars after theirs have been stolen.
In Baltimore, the trend is being felt most acutely in northeast part of the city, where more than 900 stolen auto incidents have been reported already this year, according to The Banner’s analysis. In Frankford alone, there have been 350 reported auto theft incidents so far this year, more than in any other city neighborhood and an increase of 332% from the same time last year.
Nearby Belair-Edison had the second-most-stolen auto incidents, with more than 300, up from 78 this time last year.
A small stretch of land in Frankford near the Goodnow Hill apartments and Herring Run Recreation Center exemplifies how bad auto theft has gotten in the neighborhood. Those blocks, which include the 4900-5100 blocks of Goodnow Road and 4900 block of Gunther Avenue, saw seven reported auto thefts incidents all of last year. This year, there have already been 43.
The blocks, which include several open-air parking lots around Goodnow Hill apartments, have been repeatedly victimized since the beginning of the year. Since the start of 2023, those blocks have had three different days when multiple car thefts incidents were reported. From July 23 to 25, and again from Aug. 26 to 29, an auto theft incident was reported on those blocks every day.
Some residents came back to their cars to find their windows smashed and ignitions popped. Others, however, were forced to go days without a car before their vehicles were recovered in another part of the city, damaged and inoperable.
For the area’s mostly Black, mostly working-class residents, having reliable access to a car is very important. According to Census data, about two-thirds of residents drive to work, about 20% higher than the average for the rest of the city. Residents commute around 30 minutes to their jobs on average. Being without a car, even for a short period of time, can be a significant, potentially expensive, disruption.
Brooks’ home is a mere minute drive from those blocks. The apartments neighbor blocks of single-family homes. People park their cars in driveways or on the streets in front of their homes. On narrower streets, cars are parked partly on the sidewalk to prevent them from being side-swiped.
Residents’ views on the car thefts varied depending on which door was knocked on. Several had no idea car thefts were happening in the area. Others said they do what they can to prevent car thefts by keeping their security systems updated.
Brooks said her car was stolen about a week before she was supposed to take it to the dealership to get anti-theft software installed after receiving a letter from Hyundai.
Now, with her primary car out of service, her household is down to one car, a 2018 Hyundai Santa Fe, another model vulnerable without anti-theft software. That means coordinating work schedules, appointments and other errands with her 25-year-old son. Sometimes she stays at work longer than she needs to until her son can pick her up because she doesn’t want to spend $30 to $50 to take an Uber or a Lyft home.
“I wish they would consider the inconvenience that it causes families,” Brooks said of car thieves.
She’s unsure about whether she wants to move from the block or out of Baltimore completely. Her family is originally from Trinidad and Tobago, and her mother bought the house decades ago. They’ve rented it out before, but didn’t have the best luck with tenants, so she’s considering selling it.
Brooks viewed surveillance camera footage of the thefts and said the people who stole her car look young, and a part of her blames their parents because she doesn’t understand why they’re out at all hours of the night.
“They just take your stuff off the property. It’s very disrespectful,” Brooks said.
Police took a report when it was stolen, but Brooks felt that officers were uninterested in hearing about the surveillance footage she and her neighbor captured.
Recently, Baltimore announced ramped-up efforts to address the surge in auto thefts. Mayor Brandon Scott said that while the city has seen significant reductions in violent crime, the number of auto thefts “is one statistic trending in the wrong direction.”
Scott announced that 2,000 additional steering wheel locks will be distributed to residents who own Kia or Hyundai vehicles. There are also plans to get more digital tracking tags to help recover stolen vehicles.
Three miles from Brooks’ home, Michael Owens doesn’t need a badge to reinforce that he is the see-something, say-something neighbor. He’s constantly posting pictures on NextDoor of seemingly abandoned cars in case anyone might spot their stolen car. He reads about a lot of stolen cars on the neighborhood social media site.
“It’s not getting better. It’s not going to get better because people aren’t getting better. As long as the culture is how it is now, it’s not gonna get any better,” said Owens, 65.
Owens doesn’t really go out at night and said his head is constantly on a swivel when he leaves the house in general. Watching his back is Champ, his 2-year old pit bull. Owens, who’s lived on his block in Frankford for almost 10 years, believes those trying to cause harm or steal prey on people who look vulnerable. He doesn’t rummage to find his keys on the way to the car or sit on his phone in the car, and he plans his walking routes in advance.
Earl Johnson, president of the Frankford Community Association, said there are traumas and other mental health challenges when someone has had their car stolen or they’re constantly thinking it’s going to get stolen.
“I find myself looking out the window all night,” said Johnson, who recently purchased a 2020 Hyundai Santa Fe.
Johnson doesn’t see much he and others residents can do to offset car thefts aside from relying on police for direction. Since spring, Johnson said, he’s noticed the uptick in car thefts in the neighborhood and he’s had to rethink where he parks his car and ensure he puts on a steering wheel lock.
Johnson believes many of the car thefts involve people under the age of 18. They do not have anything to do, it seems, and the national TikTok trend didn’t help, he added.
It’s easy to feel powerless because it seems that there aren’t any consequences for young people stealing property, he said. People are also scared of retaliation because if a person steals a car, they may be privy to where someone lives because of where it was parked.
Statistics show that 35% of people arrested for stealing cars this year are juveniles, according to the Baltimore Police Department. But there are also instances when police cannot make an arrest due to the age of the person. In 2022, Maryland set the minimum age for charging children criminally to 13 in most cases.
Johnson doesn’t think mass incarceration is the answer, either, but he thinks that there need to be consequences for young people stealing cars. He said solutions could involve the City Council working with Gov. Wes Moore and other appropriate parties to put laws and programs in place.
“This is when we need legislators. We don’t need any more rhetoric,” Johnson said.
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