Residing in the comfort and security of wealthy Morris County communities, it's easy to think "Grand Theft Auto" is just a video game.
But law-enforcement leaders say there is a dramatic rise in the number of violent criminals organizing to target high-end vehicles in these neighborhoods. This also increases the risk of residents finding themselves confronting the perpetrators — who frequently multitask as burglars — in their homes.
"This is an escalating problem and it's not limited to simply property theft," Morris County Prosecutor Robert Carroll said. "It's becoming much more dangerous. it's becoming much more of a threat to the public and something we are very concerned about."
Auto theft in the United States had been on a steady decline since 1990, when the occurrence rate stood at 657.8 vehicles per 100,000 of the population, according to government statistics. The rate dropped to 215.4 in 2015, went back up slightly in 2019 to 220.8, but in 2020 saw a sharp increase to 246.
Overall in New Jersey, auto theft was slightly down in 2020. But the theft of high-end vehicles increased by 7.5%, prompting then-Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal and the Office of the Insurance Fraud Prosecutor to launch a “Lock It or Lose It” public awareness campaign aimed at discouraging people from leaving their cars unlocked with the key fob inside.
In Morris County, 890 vehicles have been stolen since 2018, according to Morris County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Brad Seabury.
"I don't think the average citizen knows that is happening," said Seabury, who heads the Auto Theft Task Force for the Morris County Prosecutor's Office.
"I don't think there's a concern, even at 2 p.m. when they are in and out [of their home], and it's gone when they come out," Carroll said. "That happened in Mountain Lakes about a month ago. Two cars stolen in a short period of time during the day."
Property loss is one thing. It's the danger posed to residents by burglars who often use the unlocked vehicle to access garage door openers in order to gain access into a home, say law enforcement officials.
"I can cite a case where a car was stolen and they entered the house with the family upstairs," Carroll said. "That to us is a frightening scenario, and certainly for the family involved."
There is an increasing risk of violence connected to vehicle theft, sayinvestigators who see a new criminal-enterprise model where criminals are organizing and targeting high-end vehicles parked outside affluent homes.
"These are not crimes like they used to be," Carroll said. "They are not crimes of opportunity or joyriding. This is teams of small organized criminal groups who go through a neighborhood to identify cars that are susceptible to being stolen."
Data compiled by the task force paints a troubling portrait of the individuals populating these criminal teams. Seventeen suspects rounded up by the task force earlier last year after a string of vehicle thefts in Chatham Township accumulated 179 criminal charges prior to this arrest, Carroll said.
"Their histories include weapons offenses, robbery, resisting arrest and aggravated assault," Carroll said. "You're dealing with experienced criminals."
If you think most high-end vehicle owners are smart enough not to leave key fobs in their unattended, unlocked cars, think again.
"About 96% of the vehicles that have been stolen in Morris County had key fobs left behind," Seabury said. A lot of new luxury cars come with a card. They're leaving that behind too, Seabury said.
“Ironically, car thieves are stealing vehicles that are equipped with advanced anti-theft technology, but that technology is rendered useless when owners make the decision to leave key fobs inside their cars," said Col. Patrick J. Callahan, superintendent of the New Jersey State Police. "This careless behavior encourages criminals to look for easy targets."
The thieves are trained to spot unlocked vehicles from a distance.
Among their tricks: "High-end cars have external mirrors that are usually perpendicular to the car. They're sticking out straight," Carroll said. "When they lock the car, if they have the feature, they fold in. So as these spotters are driving by and see a BMW or other high-end car with the mirrors sticking out, they know it's open. That's just one indicator."
Some perpetrators of the actual thefts may be young, even minors, Carroll said. He's more interested in the ringleaders "who may be removed from the actual crime."
The ringleader in the Chatham Township thefts was a 23-years-old. He was sentenced in September to two terms of seven years in prison on convictions for second-degree conspiracy to commit theft and second-degree theft; four years in prison on four burglary convictions and three years in prison on three convictions for fraudulent credit card theft and use stemming from the burglary.
The court also ordered him to pay the victims more than $50,000 in restitution.
The convictions and significant sentences were the result of modern techniques Seabury referred to as "an intelligence-driven model of investigation" and the use of shared resources with county and municipal investigators through the task force.
Seabury was reluctant to share specific techniques and tip off his targets.
"We want to be careful with our techniques because they work," he said. "You don't necessarily want to reveal the techniques you are using because that will cause these groups to change their techniques. They are looking at what we do, and then changing their methods."
Mainly, new techniques that "take advantage of the technology we currently have, and using it to work backwards to solve the case and create really strong proofs against the individual or groups," Seabury said.
"It's everything from cellphone forensics, which we're using in all of our cases, to good old-fashioned police work where the detectives are canvassing the neighborhoods, getting all of the video evidence that would be available to us," Carroll said.
"A lot of these high-end vehicles have a lot of stored electronic info that would be valuable," Seabury said. "That's also something we're using."
"There's retrievable data in the cars they cannot defeat," Carroll said.
While some of the stolen vehicles are shipped out for sale overseas, many are recovered in Newark and other inner-city areas in North Jersey. Their condition provides additional evidence that many of these vehicles are used in the commission of other, often violent crimes.
"The more readily available profit-making motive is to use the car making other crimes, using the anonymity of the car to assist them," Carroll said. Whether that's a robbery, a home invasion, whatever. A car gives anonymity when it's stolen. You don't know who's driving the car, You don't know who stole it."
"They're being recovered after shootings, after carjackings, after robberies and gang problems," Seabury said. "We recover these vehicles and there'll be bullet holes and shell casings. We have recovered vehicles that were burned afterward, but there were bullet holes. So we know it wasn't done for insurance, it was done to cover the tracks."
"That's why the task force was created," Carroll said. "Stolen cars enable violent crime. It's not just happening at night. People need to be vigilant. These people are dangerous."
As one of the wealthiest counties in the united states, with many affluent neighborhoods to prospect, Morris County is a natural destination for thieves looking to steal high-end vehicles.
Here and throughout New Jersey, law-enforcement leaders still wish people would not tune out oft-heard phrases such as "lock it or lose it" and "if you see something, say something."
It really is important, Carroll said. "There's something about locking cars that people just don't appreciate. We could really use some help getting the word out about that."
“It could be a critical first step in the commission of much more serious crimes like murder and robbery,” Grewal said. “We want people to realize that carelessly leaving their key fobs in their unlocked cars or leaving their cars running and unattended is an open invitation to car thieves who need a vehicle to carry out their criminal agenda.”
The task force is an ongoing entity "with plenty of work," Carroll said.
William Westhoven is a local reporter for DailyRecord.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
This article originally appeared on Morristown Daily Record: Morris: County NJ: Vehicle thefts on the rise, police say