Be careful where you park your car, it might not be there when you come back. Chicago — like much of the nation — has seen a huge rise in car thefts since 2020, with no let-up in sight.
Adding to the problem, the Chicago Police Department has linked several recent robbery sprees to stolen vehicles. That comes as carmakers Kia and Hyundai face scrutiny for failing to provide adequate security systems for their cars.
Last Friday, Northwest Side resident Matt Nalett spotted a stolen Hyundai Tuscon in an alley just off of the intersection of North and Cicero avenues.
“So you can see the window is broken out with the glass, there’s probably some inside the vehicle on the floor,” Nallet observed.
Nalett knew the car was stolen because the back window was gone, there were shards of glass on the seat and the ignition had been ripped apart with several wires sticking out. He says the thief needed nothing more than a screw driver and a USB cord to start the car.
“You see in the middle of the cylinder where that notch is?” Nalett said. “That’s where they used the USB.”
Nalett says he spends several hours a week scouring alleyways, empty lots and side streets on the West and Northwest sides of the city for stolen vehicles.
When he finds a vehicle that looks suspicious, he’ll run the plates in the Chicago Police Department’s stolen car database.
He’s fairly busy these days.
Chicago Police Department crime statistics show a sharp rise in car thefts — from just under 9,000 in 2019 to more than 21,000 last year. That’s a 139% spike in just three years. And 2023’s numbers are on track to be even higher.
Ernesto Lopez is a research specialist for the Council on Criminal Justice, a national organization that studies crime trends.
“It looks like these are mostly Kia and Hyundai related … select makes and models are vulnerable to thefts,” Lopez said.
He says Chicago’s spike mirrors a nationwide trend, which might have been sparked by a viral TikTok video.
“That Tiktok challenge of how to steal the Kias and Hyundais, that was the biggest thing,” Nalett said. “And kids are like, we got nothing to do, let’s steal cars. When they were out that two years of COVID, they were bored and had nothing to do and stealing cars left and right.”
But other makes and models are vulnerable too, and crime statistics show every corner of the city is seeing thefts.
Last December, Beena David, a professional singer, left her car in the Grant Park South Parking Garage before a music rehearsal at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. When she came back, the car was gone.
“Completely gone, and I knew exactly where I parked it,” David said. “My reaction was disbelief. I literally had my mouth agape. It’s gone!”
David documented her travails on TikTok. A month later, after claiming full reimbursement from her insurance, David got word her car was at an auto impound lot in Hammond, Indiana. She went to see what shape it was in.
As seen on her TikTok account, Beena opens the car door and finds some unwelcome surprises on the seats.
“We open the vehicle and there are a bunch of stolen items, three stolen car batteries, half a smoked blunt, the guy’s cellphone,” she explained. “It looked like a rifle but I was told it was a pellet gun, and the saddest thing was children’s DVDs and juice boxes.”
“These cars are used in the commission of another crime, joyriding or even being sold,” Lopez said.
And according to CPD statistics, most thieves get away with the initial crime. Last year, the clearance rate for solving motor vehicle thefts was a paltry 4%.
Sources close to CPD say the department de-emphasizes solving these types of crimes to devote more resources to more serious crimes.
Nalett says motorists can do a few things to protect their cars: buy an alarm, convert from a key to push button starter, or just get an old-fashioned club.
The nonprofit National Insurance Crime Bureau offers this advice for those that have had their cars stolen: First, report the theft to law enforcement on the day you discover the car is gone. Then, use the police report to submit a claim to your insurer to get reimbursement. Finally, be prepared to have the make and model, license plate number and VIN number handy.
Beena David has since replaced her vehicle — and parked in the same garage — and says her luck hasn’t improved much. She says she forgot to lock her car before rushing out to a recent rehearsal.
“When I came back, the glove box was open and it had been ransacked through, and nothing had been missing except my homemade lunch: chicken curry and cherries.”
Nalett says he’ll stay on the prowl until law enforcement puts more emphasis on solving car thefts.
“I don’t like seeing stolen cars. People need them,” he said.
Follow Paris Schutz on Twitter: @paschutz