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Lock up that GPS device
Cops say they're the hot item for smash-grab thieves
By Ames Boykin | Daily Herald Staff

Suburban police warn drivers to remove their GPS devices when leaving their vehicles unattended, since smash-and-grab thieves target the gadgets.


Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

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Published: 6/2/2008 12:01 AM

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It takes just 15 minutes of scouring a few adjacent parking lots in Schaumburg to find five sitting targets.

Perched above the dashboard, GPS devices spied in vehicles in parking lots outside a health club and office building are prime picking for smash-and-grab thieves.

Tapping into satellites, global positioning system devices have been a boon for drivers.

But as they have grown more affordable and increasingly common, they also have become more prone to theft. The portable units range in price from about $200 to more than $1,000.

Schaumburg police Sgt. John Nebl drove a reporter in a crime enforcement van to tour a few area parking lots on a recent weekday morning.

His mission: To show just how common it is for people to leave out GPS devices despite police warnings to hide them.

"It's just as simple as driving through a parking lot and looking in people's windows," Nebl says from behind the wheel. "It takes all of 10 seconds to grab it and walk away."

Schaumburg police alone logged 21 reports of stolen GPS devices in the first two weeks of May. Des Plaines police took reports of five thefts in a single day, May 27.

Parking lots for apartments, hotels and shopping centers are the popular prowling grounds, Nebl said.

Other suburban police departments are seeing the same trend.

While CDs and police radar detectors used to be the "it" thing for car thieves, now it's more about laptop computers, GPS devices and satellite radio portable units.

"People need to exercise a little more common sense. They should secure it and other valuables," Naperville police Cmdr. Dave Hoffman said. "Oftentimes, the damage to the car is more than the items stolen."

With summer approaching, Buffalo Grove police spokesman Todd Kupsak said it's a good time to remind people to remove both the device and its holder when leaving the car unattended.

Like other suburban departments, Buffalo Grove police officers sometimes leave a card on a car if they see a GPS displayed prominently as a reminder for drivers to keep safe.

College students coming home to live with their parents for the summer are used to letting their guard down on campus, so Kupsak offered a reminder to them to remember to close the windows and lock the doors.

Also, that glove compartment isn't the safest hiding spot for the GPS device, and leaving the holder behind is a signal to potential thieves.

"When the docking station's sitting there in plain view, people know the GPS is in there," Nebl said. "Even if you put it (the GPS device) in your purse, you're still going to come back to a smashed window."

There have been attempts to burglar-proof the popular devices.

Garmin International Inc., based in Kansas, equips its GPS units with a password lock so only its customers can use the device.

Sure, that won't necessarily prevent someone from stealing it, but it can be an effective deterrent, a Garmin spokeswoman said.

"At that point, it's basically a paperweight," spokeswoman Jessica Myers said.

Once they are stolen, it's not as if owners or police can use a satellite to locate them. They are difficult to track and rarely recovered.

Thieves typically re-sell them to friends, online or at pawn shops, police said.

An Oregon-based company, however, is trying to solve the recovery problem. GadgetTrak sells software for a yearly subscription ($12.95) so owners can keep tabs on their computers, GPS devices, MP3 players and cell phones.

In the case of a GPS, the next time someone tries to download new information from a computer, GadgetTrak sends an e-mail to the owner. Tracking a computer IP address, the company can tell owners the exact location, said Ken Westin, company owner.

"I think a lot of our customers are people who have had stuff stolen before," Westin said. "There's a lot of anger. They feel helpless. Our software is a way to empower them so it's something they can do."

Police tips

• Remove your GPS and holder to carry with you.

• Or put the device and the holder in the trunk.

• Don't leave GPS in the glove compartment since smash-and-grab thieves look there first.