Lashanda Young said she knew she shouldn't leave her car running at a gas station around 9:40 a.m. on Jan. 17.
But Young, 38, needed to get a receipt and was only away from her 1999 Honda Accord for a couple of minutes when she heard it leaving the parking lot of the Sunoco station in the 2800 block of Olentangy River Road at Old Ackerman Road on Columbus' Northwest Side.
"There was a car that pulled up and I’m assuming that’s the car that they jumped out of," Young said. "He jumped in my car and took off and the other car just pulled off behind him."
Within a matter of minutes, Young's car was added to a tally of stolen cars that had reached 416 as of Thursday afternoon, at least 126 of which were reported stolen between Jan. 13 and Thursday. In the majority of those cases, the vehicle was either left running or the keys were left in the vehicle.
SAFETY NOTICE - STOLEN VEHICLES:
👉Please, please, please don’t leave vehicles running unattended.
👉Please don’t leave/forget key fobs inside vehicles.
🚨Less than 3 weeks into 2022, 416 vehicles have been reported stolen.
🚙 92 vehicles recovered.
🚔 20 charges.#Columbus pic.twitter.com/lmvYxGMjj1
— Columbus Ohio Police (@ColumbusPolice) January 20, 2022
Every year, the number of cars reported stolen increases when temperatures drop and people are more likely to start their car and leave it unattended while it warms up.
Teenagers mostly responsible for thefts of cars left running, police say
Columbus police Cmdr. Duane Mabry, who oversees the detective unit tasked with investigating stolen vehicles, said officers and detectives continue to see young people, mostly teenagers, responsible for the thefts.
"They have it down pat because they're doing it so often," Mabry said.
Police have not seen a large uptick in the number of "chop shops" or people making profit off of vehicle parts, Mabry said. The teens are usually using the stolen cars to steal other cars or commit additional crimes.
"These kids are brazen," Mabry said. "If we can get them in the stolen car stage, maybe we can keep them from being killed or killing someone else. We're trying to hold them accountable at 13 or 15 so they're not dead at 17."
Young was luckier than most people who have their vehicle stolen. On Thursday morning, she got a call from Columbus police telling her that her car had been found in a Walmart parking lot in Whitehall — and police there had arrested the person who was in her car.
According to a Whitehall police report, a special-duty officer had approached the car after the 21-year-old man inside had been accused of shoplifting from the Walmart.
A search of the vehicle's license plate revealed it was reported stolen. The 21-year-old was charged with receiving stolen property, according to court records.
Young's car is one of only 92 vehicles that have been recovered by police so far this year.
But her joy was short-lived when Young was told her car had been towed from where it was found and she'd have to pay nearly $200 to get it out of the impound lot.
"It had already been broken into with the back triangle window broken out," Young said. "We already are going through things financially."
Increased efforts: Police arrest three teenagers in 'bait car' sting near Ohio State campus
Mabry said that is commonplace, but oftentimes, car insurance companies will help cover the cost of getting a stolen car released from impound or reimburse the policyholder.
Where are cars most often stolen in Columbus?
On Wednesday, a group of Columbus police officers and other regional partners focused on looking for stolen vehicles in an area of the city where Mabry said a group of about 10 teenagers have been operating. That area — between Interstates 71 and 270 on the city's East and Northeast Side along Morse Road — has seen an increase in the number of reported stolen vehicles, particularly when people have left the vehicles running.
Mabry said drivers should remain situationally aware and not be on their cellphones while pumping gas. Mabry also said drivers should never leave a vehicle running and unattended, and make sure to lock the vehicle whenever it is unoccupied.
Owners of Kias and Hyundais also need to be careful because of how the cars are designed, Mabry said. The keys for those makes of vehicles do not currently have the same chips that other makes do, making them an easy target for thieves.
Across the country, the number of Kias and Hyundais reported stolen has increased dramatically over the last several months because of this flaw, he said.
Hyundai and Kia say they are working to provide owners with steering-wheel locks. Engine immobilizers, which are standard equipment on Hyundai key fobs so someone cannot start the vehicle without the correct key, also are being planned as standard equipment on its 2022 models, Kia says.
In February 2021, law enforcement agencies from across Greater Columbus began "Operation Game Over," which targeted three distinct groups of teenagers who were stealing cars.
Mabry said police have seen a decrease in the amount of crimes being committed by the groups targeted through that operation, and others that have been identified throughout the last year.
Young said she plans to press charges to the fullest extent she can, and hopes more people will continue talking about the problem with vehicle thefts and punishment for convicted offenders.
"They should get more time, young or not," she said. "They would probably stop doing it if they knew they could get five years for stealing somebody’s goods. They get off too easy. They need to go to jail and sit there."
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Vehicles left running in cold temperatures lead to rising car thefts