Car Theft Victims Build a Network to Fight Back

Photo:  Salgu Wissmath/San Francisco Chronicle via AP) (AP)
Photo: Salgu Wissmath/San Francisco Chronicle via AP) (AP)

The numbers for 2022 aren’t in yet (obviously), but it seems America is still suffering from a wave of car thefts, as well as catalytic converter thefts. Victims in Portland, Oregon have had enough, taking the situation into their own hands.

The New York Times has a story about a growing group of people who have stepped in, where law enforcement hasn’t. They’re turning to each other and social media to hunt down stolen vehicles.

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Neighbors share pictures of license plates, keep watch during commutes to work and hunt online for reports of stolen vehicles.

Nearly every day, the group, PDX Stolen Cars, helps a resident reconnect with a vehicle in Portland or the surrounding suburbs.

“This is an army, and it’s exploding,” said Victoria Johnson, who joined the group after someone drove off with her SUV while she was helping at the scene of a car accident. “It does a body good to give back and help.”

The PDX Stolen Cars Facebook group now contains nearly 12,000 members as of this writing. Members come to the group often as victims themselves, but stay on as amateur sleuths on the hunt for stolen cars. Members roam neighborhoods, industrial parks and the camps of unhomed people searching for missing cars or cars that look unusual or suspicious. Sometimes, the cars they find are so damaged they are only identifiable only via VIN.

When members find a car, there’s no reward money. There’s no revenge or vigilantism and, often, there’s no glory, as the Facebook page abounds with images of burn out cars, cars with interiors ripped out, or simply crashed and abandoned. Occasionally, however owners are reunited with their vehicles:

One man was able to recover a cherished motorcycle that he uses to honor veterans at military funerals. The group located the stolen car of a police officer’s wife.

Ms. Johnson found the group after losing her Lincoln Navigator during the roadside stop and went scouring online for a way to track it down. She didn’t stop there, and drove a meticulous grid through the area where her vehicle had been taken.

She didn’t find it, but she did spot another man’s vehicle that had been posted to the group, which helped him recover it. Days later, that same man texted with a surprise: He had found Ms. Johnson’s vehicle. She now spends several days a week checking her area for stolen cars and says she has discovered several.

The reason for the spike in auto thefts seen around the country are varied; supply chain woes making cars (and car parts) more valuable than ever, the additional pressure of inflation making crime more attractive and staffing issues within police department overwhelmed with more violent cases. Portland’s problems aren’t unique; police around the country are reporting higher than usual car thefts, Car and Driver reports, though we’re still no where near the bad old days of the ‘90s.

These kinds of thefts often hit people who can least afford the hassle. Older cars are often first off the street along with affordable (and highly stealable) Kias and Hyundai. Even if the whole car doesn’t go missing, the catalytic converter is also at risk—an unexpected and expensive repair that can run hundreds of dollars.

Check out the entire report of a plucky citizens helping each other out here.

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