Law enforcement officials have long warned against leaving valuables in parked cars—with good reason: In one fast-growing crime already detailed in Scam Alert, a wallet left in the glove compartment can be an easy route to identity theft, as thieves break into vehicles specifically to steal one or two credit cards but leave other cards behind to hide their crime.
But other types of theft can result when certain items are left in a parked car. A garage-opening remote control, for example, can give car-stealing thieves easy access to your home. The thieves can get your address from your registration and insurance documents, drive your car to your home and use the remote to open the garage door to enter the house.
Now there’s a new car crime, this one involving dashboard-mounted Global Positioning System (GPS) devices. One e-mail circulating around the country to warn people about the crime details a report about a car broken into while the owner was attending a football game. The thieves then used its GPS device to learn the owner’s address, the e-mail claims, and burglarized the home while the owner was at the game.
Although snopes.com, which investigates scam-related reports, says the e-mail is only “partly true,” law enforcement officials say GPS crimes are very real.
“If you enter your home address on the GPS, a thief who breaks into your car can use it to know where you live,” explains Kim Cannaday of the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office near Orlando, Fla. “Then, knowing you’re at a restaurant or shopping, a home burglary can be done while no one is home.”
Her department issued a warning that if GPS owners choose to log their home addresses on the devices, they should hide them on the system and not label them as “home.” Many GPS devices have a specific “home” button, giving burglars easy directions to the owner’s address.
“We issued that warning not because we know of this crime occurring here, but we have heard reports that it is occurring elsewhere, from other police agencies,” says Cannaday.
In one recent case, police in Nassau County, N.Y., say that a 2008 Mercedes-Benz was stolen from a valet-parking station, and as its owner dined at a restaurant, thieves used the car’s GPS device to go to the owner’s home. There, a second car, a Porsche, was also stolen, as its keys were left in the parked Mercedes.
Conceivably, a GPS can also be used to conduct identity theft. With the name and address of a car owner, thieves could apply for credit cards and loans in the victim’s name, after buying Social Security numbers on the Internet. Several websites, used by private investigators and credit providers, sell that personal information to those who do background checks (or pretend to).
Finally, GPS devices are often stolen and resold online or in pawn shops.
How can you protect yourself?
- Take a few minutes to detach your GPS device from the dashboard when you park your car. “It’s best to carry it with you,” says Cannaday. “At the least, hide it somewhere in your car, and be sure to wipe away the suction marks so thieves don’t know you have it.”
- Be vigilant with other devices, as well. Even if a garage door remote stolen from a parked car doesn’t provide entry to a home, a burglar can still steal items in the garage.
- Hide car papers. A glove compartment is typically the first place car thieves will check for documents with your address. Placing them under the car seat or elsewhere in the vehicle may make them harder to locate.
If your car is broken into, immediately report the theft to your local police agency. But also be especially vigilant about home security afterward: Ask your neighbors to watch your home for any suspicious activity while you’re gone and to contact police immediately if they notice your car or any other car in your driveway when they know you’re away.
Sid Kirchheimer is the author of "Scam-Proof Your Life" (AARP Books/Sterling).