While car thefts dropped nationwide last year for the seventh consecutive year, California's crop-abundant Central Valley showed an increase in vehicle thefts, according to a report by the National Insurance Crime Bureau released Tuesday.
Three areas in the Valley -- Fresno, Modesto and Bakersfield-Delano -- are the top three hotspots for car thefts per capita nationwide, the data show. California, considered the capital of car culture, dominates the 2010 list of hotspots, with 8 of the nation's top 10 car theft areas.
The Vallejo-Fairfield area ranks fifth, the area comprising Sacramento, Arden-Arcade and Roseville is sixth, Stockton is seventh, Visalia-Porterville is eighth, and the San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont area ranks ninth. The other two areas in the top 10 are Spokane and Yakima, Wash.
The Central Valley has long ranked high in nationwide rankings of car thefts. Modesto and Stanislaus County, for example, have been in the top 10 since at least 2004.
In 2010, the Fresno area ranked first, with 7,559 thefts for a rate of 812 per 100,000 inhabitants.
The report ranks 366 metropolitan areas based on the number of vehicle thefts per 100,000 people. That means larger cities don't rank as high, National Insurance Crime Bureau spokesman Frank Scafidi said. "They lose as many cars in the half time at a Lakers game in Los Angeles as they do in Modesto," Scafidi said.
Police in the Central Valleyattribute the rise in car thefts to a variety of factors, including poverty and drug use, especially methamphetamine.
"The current economy, it just forces people to look for other ways of making money," said Lt. Larry Chambers, who leads the Stanislaus County Auto Theft Task Force. Drugs, he said, are another reason: "If you find a car thief, you also find a person who uses drugs. They get high, then they have to fund their habit."
A large demand for car parts also fuels the trend, especially in California, where street racing is still a popular pastime, said Burke Farrah, the commander of Fresno's Career Criminal Auto Theft Team.
Contrary to stereotypes, car theft hurts the poor more than the rich, Farrah said. Most stolen vehicles are older models, because newer cars have more sophisticated anti-theft technology.
"The cars they're stealing belong to students, to hardworking blue collar people, folks who are struggling to get by," Farrah said.
Alarmed by the climbing statistics -- car theft was up more than 30 percent in Fresno County -- the city of Fresno formed a task force this year that targets top offenders.
The biggest problem isn't so much catching the thieves, but keeping them off the streets, Farrah said. An average auto thief spends just a few hours in the overcrowded jails then has a long wait to see a judge.
In one high-profile case, a man was caught carrying car theft tools, including shaved keys. Investigators say he bragged that he stole as many as 40 cars a month and about 1,000 in his life, but he was released from county jail in May because of overcrowding.
To improve the chances of keeping car thieves behind bars, police are linking up car thefts with other crimes, such as narcotics, ID theft and gang activity that can result in longer sentences.
For example, the task force arrested Jonathan Noisey on auto theft, possession of a stolen vehicle and weapons charges. The 26-year-old, who told investigators he stole about 400 cars this past year, accepted a plea deal and was sent to state prison for eight years and eight months.
Public awareness is key to combatting car theft. The task force has worked to involve the community by giving away free steering wheel locks and advertising the task force in the Yellow Pages. They hold an annual "warm-up campaign" during which officers knock on doors of residents who leave their cars warming up in the driveway to warn them about the possibility of theft.
To avoid car theft, police tell residents to use steering wheel locking devices, park in well-lit areas, remove valuables from view, or invest in alarms and GPS vehicle locating devices.