By Peter Salinas
Dealers in the Mid-Atlantic region have been plagued with thefts from their lots including vehicles and valuables. For instance in May 2016, 21 suspects from an alleged carjacking auto theft ring in New Jersey were arrested and indicted for stealing vehicles, including from dealership lots, and then shipping them overseas.
A recent wave of car thefts from dealerships in the Greater Atlanta region should serve as a warning and offer a lesson to dealers everywhere.
Thieves have been casing dealerships looking for easy targets, especially when it comes to key cabinets. One Norcross, Georgia dealership was broken into and 25 keys were stolen. That night, the thieves stole one vehicle and damaged several others as they drove through the lot and over curbs to avoid the locked gates. A number of dealerships in the region have been targeted similarly.
Thieves returned the next night and drove off with three other vehicles, leaving more damage to other vehicles in their wake. The dealership was scammed two weeks later during open hours, when a team of professional thieves test drove several vehicles, and performed a “key swap” with the salesman and drove off with a high-end unit, unbeknownst to dealership employees. In all, the dealership suffered more than $280,000 in lost and damaged vehicles and lot damage in five separate instances. The dealership has since hired a night security guard, hired an ex-FBI agent to investigate the thefts, and beefed up its security systems, policies and procedures.
Gwinnett, Georgia Police Motor Vehicle Theft Unit Sergeant Ted Conlon said the theft of vehicles by means of stealing keys is not uncommon and definitely preventable. During his investigation of the Norcross dealership, Conlon said he was surprised to find a highly visible key rack in an area easily accessible to customers.
“Keys should be secured in a safe or other manner that makes it very difficult to access by those who should not have access,” Conlon said. “Keys locked in a cabinet that can be easily broken into with a sledge hammer are not secured enough.”
Conlon noted that the “key swap” scam is not new, but it is effective. In Norcross, two men drove up in a truck and asked to test drive several vehicles. During the interim, they returned keys to the salesman, but kept the key to the car they wanted to steal. While one of the men sat at a desk with the salesman, the other remained looking at vehicles on the lot. Later from security camera footage, it was discovered a third man was hiding in the truck. He was given the key, and drove off in the vehicle. No one noticed until later in the day.
As to security systems, Conlon said officers are slow to respond to noise alarms where police are notified via a signal sent to the department, as more often than not, the alarms are false. He suggested that motion detection systems tied to video that can detect thieves in action are more likely to result in quick police response.
“When you can tell us thieves are on site and actively stealing cars, multiple police units will respond quickly,” Conlon said.
He suggested dealers do their own safety and security audit for their dealerships. Often insurance companies can assist with this. He noted that using a healthy dose of common sense when it comes to securing the dealership, entrances, keys, and service areas is highly recommended.
Conlon suggested the key thieves appear to be younger Atlanta residents, who come out to the suburbs in small groups, steal vehicles and return to the city. The vehicles are used for joy riding or for parts or both.
The key swap professionals either falsify documentation and sell the vehicles at prices far below their value to unsuspecting consumers, or clandestinely ship them outside the United States.