November 28th, 2011

Broken windows, broken-into cars

Last Wednesday I drove to New York City to be with my family for Thanksgiving.

Even though it’s ordinarily one of the worst days for traveling, I was pleasantly surprised to experience traffic that was hardly any worse than usual. Thanksgiving itself went well, and after driving my 96-year-old aunt and 97-year-old mother back to their respective residences, I had the good fortune to find a parking space not far from my brother’s place in the well-lit, pleasant, peaceful, trendy-yet-family-oriented neighborhood where he lives.

Sounds good, right? And it was, it was—except that the next afternoon, when I went to get my car, I found the back driver’s-side window smashed and a gaping hole in the steering wheel, my introduction to the new (to me) and apparently quite popular crime of airbag theft.

Yes folks, airbag theft. It can be done quickly by an expert, in under two minutes (isn’t human ingenuity wonderful?). And although it’s new to me, it’s actually been going on for at least fifteen years (see two articles from the mid-90s, here and here). New York is a leader in this, as in so many hot trends.

The following was written in 1996, but it’s still true. Just adjust the prices upward for 2011 and you’ve got the picture:

The crime [of airbag theft] is lucrative.

Thieves can sell the unexploded, Frisbee-sized devices for between $50 and $200 to unscrupulous body shop operators, who install them in collision-damaged cars, and collect from $400 to $1,200 from insurance companies, according to Insurance Crime Bureau statistics. Add on labor costs and the total payout can climb to $2,000.

“Some people, in theory, might be buying back their own air bags,” said Barbara Rambo, an Insurance Crime Bureau special agent based in Chicago’s south suburbs.

Although it happened to me on the Friday of Thanksgiving weekend and no one was going to touch the car until today at the earliest, I felt the need to get it and its gaping wounds off the street. So I drove it to the body shop.

I have a high level of trust in the one I’m using, but before I got there I joked to a friend that the body shop probably runs the airbag theft ring and would be installing my very own (recycled!) airbag for a pretty penny. When I made that quip that I thought I was just being funny, but apparently that’s precisely what happens with some shadier body shops.

Even though in the scheme of things the whole thing is really just a minor inconvenience, and I’ll probably “only” have to pay the deductible, there’s something shocking and wrenching about coming upon one’s violated car (my relatively new car, at that, even though I bought it used).

At first it’s hard to believe one’s eyes. It seems as though the window’s only been left open. But the little bits of glass all around the perimeter of the place where the window used to be, and the shards—with smoothed and rounded edges, due to the special nature of automobile glass—that pepper the entire back seat, floor, and even the front seats of the car, tell the tale almost as clearly as the dangling wires in the hollow of the gouged-out steering wheel.

Did my car alarm go off? Don’t know. It turns out that car alarms are not always set to activate when windows are smashed, as thieves no doubt are aware. But even if it did go off, people tend to ignore the sound, and anyway it doesn’t go on forever.

[NOTE: The title of this post is a reference to this concept.]

50 Responses to “Broken windows, broken-into cars”

  1. Will Says:

    Sorry to hear it. Won’t drive into that town anymore, unless it’s a rental, and even then, I’m hesitant. I had my prized VW stolen when I moved there (Park Slope) in ’96 and the experience left me shaken and financially behind the eight-ball. At the time I was still commuting back to NE half the week for work, and when I heard that it would take “six months” for a police report, I thought they were just kidding. Of course, they were not. It took six months, and then a threatening letters from an attorney to recoup some of my losses. In the interim, I spent hundreds, on rentals, cabs etc. Don’t take anything you value or care about to NYC, they simply aren’t interested in your troubles.

  2. M J R Says:

    So very sorry, neo.

    But thanks for the tip / lesson . . .

  3. donb Says:

    Out west where people regularly drive pickup trucks, thieves steal the spare tires (which are mounted underneath the back end) and/or the tailgate. Tailgates of Chevrolets/GMCs are a particularly hot item. The missing spare tire is often not even noticed for a while, unless it is needed.

  4. F Says:

    Sorry about your loss, Neo. A true story about owning a car in NYC:

    A friend decided he really didn’t want his car — a 15 year-old clunker, it is true — any longer. He lived in a more or less run-down section of NYC, and knowing how quickly things were stolen out of cars while parked on the city streets, decided he’d take advantage of the situation. He found a parking place near his apartment, parked the car with the keys in the ignition and the doors unlocked. Six weeks later it was still there, untouched. As they say, go figure!

  5. Scott Says:

    Sorry you have to deal with that. What a pain.

    I had a side mirror intentionally broken off of a car once. Like you, I was visiting in a city in which I did not live. The car was parallel parked on the street. The right side, which was the side that had the mirror broken, was not exposed to vehicular traffic. There was a sidewalk to accommodate pedestrians. So some jerk walking down the sidewalk just decided to engage in a random act of vandalism. While this also happened in an affluent neighborhood, I was actually relieved the vandal didn’t do even more severe damage like break the windows, slice a tire, jump up and down on the hood, or whatever.

    It happened on a weekend and I was lucky enough to have it repaired and the whole ordeal behind me by Monday afternoon. It “only” cost me about $200 and a couple of hours of time. But it is very annoying to be hassled because someone else does not respect your property.

    I sympathize with your predicament.

  6. Neocon Hippie Says:

    Here in Berkeley there was a rash of convertible top slashings this past summer. My GF was a victim *twice* and I was once, which was the one time I parked my car on the street overnight instead of in my car port. Nothing was stolen from our cars, although in my GF’s second instance, they tried to get into her glove compartment.

  7. LisaM Says:

    Sorry this happened to you. This would never have occurred to me, but thieves are ingenious.

    I’m depressed about the state of humanity, too, this weekend. We put a garden flag of his favorite football team on my father’s grave, and someone stole it. I’m scratching my head over the mentality it would take to think that this was an OK thing to do. His headstone makes it clear that he’s a Navy veteran of the Korean War. I guess the type of person who would steal from a grave wouldn’t have respect for the military.

  8. Mr. Frank Says:

    As we say in the South, some people just need killing. They are parasites who prey upon society.

  9. J.J. formerly Jimmy J. Says:

    My retired cop friend talks a lot about the old days when the police could do “proactive” law enforcement. That was when cops walked the beat. They knew their neighborhoods and when “dirt bags” showed up they were watched carefully and often leaned on with the goal of preventing crime. Certainly, making it known that ALL crime is taken seriously is the first step in creating a more law abiding city. Too bad NYC and so many other cities don’t take broken windows all that seriously.

  10. Occam's Beard Says:

    That was when cops walked the beat. They knew their neighborhoods and when “dirt bags” showed up they were watched carefully and often leaned on with the goal of preventing crime.

    Now we elect them to office.

  11. Gringo Says:

    J.J. formerly Jimmy J.

    Too bad NYC and so many other cities don’t take broken windows all that seriously.

    George Kelling, the author of the broken windows theory, consulted for the NYC Transit authority in 1985, which used his theories to reduce crimes on the subways. Graffiti was targeted. Turnstile jumpers tended to have warrants out on them.

  12. physicsguy Says:

    Thanks a lot, Occam!! Now I have to clean left over pecan pie off of my monitor!

  13. CV Says:

    First I’ve heard of airbag theft. One more thing to worry about, I guess.

    I was the victim of a smash and grab about 13 years ago. The thieves were very fast and were apparently attracted to the many CDs we left in plain sight in the car (hard to imagine anyone stealing CDs these days).

    They also scooped up every penny of spare change and some sports equipment and garment bags from the trunk. I’m sure the thugs were expecting fancy suits in the garment bags, but they actually contained handmade costumes from an eastern European dance group my young daughters belonged to (and the group insisted on reimbursement to the tune of hundreds of dollars, thus adding insult to injury.)

    Anyway, my five-year-old daughter was with me when we returned to the car and discovered the smashed window and broken glass on the seat. She was horrified and cried for hours, and I still remember that sick feeling of violation.

    This all happened at about 11 am on a sunny weekend morning in a fairly busy, upscale urban neighborhood. But I made the mistake of parking on a side street instead of the main road.

  14. Ed Bonderenka Says:

    I had to got to court in Detroit.
    In the winter.
    We parked on the street outside the courthouse, and police cars were circling the area regularly.
    Came out and saw the window “down”, got in, told the kid to roll up is window, and saw the stereo gone, with the heater controls, as a cop car drove by.

  15. Artfldgr Says:

    F, read your post again, and do not assume thieves are thieves because they are stupid or any number of derogatory terms alone or together.

    it also shows a lot of ignorance as to the BUSINESS of car theft and other theft…

    A friend decided he really didn’t want his car — a 15 year-old clunker, it is true — any longer.

    If it isn’t worth squat, why steal it?
    the law will put you away for stealing a car
    so why go to jail for a clunker?

    he found a parking place near his apartment, parked the car with the keys in the ignition and the doors unlocked. Six weeks later it was still there, untouched. As they say, go figure!

    well, i will figure..
    as thieves do not just wander around looking into cars trying to find keys…

    they get an order of what kinds of cars and parts are needed. in that way, its more like hunting for a bounty, than random acts.

    chump change wont pay the rent, the diapers, and the girlfriends much…

    since he has no title, he cant give it to a junk yard for 40 dollars or so…

    Keys negate your friends insurance if any, and they do not change the sentence on the crime..

    so its really not that amazing

    its only amazing if your world view doesn’t jive with reality, and so reality then surprises you as it doesn’t work the way YOU think it does based on the premises in your world view

  16. SteveH Says:

    Thieves will also remove your catalytic converter with a cordless sawzall in about 12 seconds of being under your car. Must be a market for those too.

  17. Don Carlos Says:

    Right on, Art.
    Further, the owner of the 15-yr-old jalopy could’ve junked it himself, but was too lazy, and tied up a parking spot for 6 weeks.

  18. Webutante Says:

    Oh Neo, I’m so sorry and sympathetic! I had my (buried under a blanket on the back floor) purse stolen out of my car two weekends ago while hiking with a friend.

    Yours was a more sophisticated, big city theft, but still a monumental pain in the buns! The broken glass everywhere sent cold chills up my spine!

    Sorry for your misfortune, though I think it’s a good reason to use a parking garage in the city.

  19. Occam's Beard Says:

    Thieves will also remove your catalytic converter with a cordless sawzall in about 12 seconds of being under your car. Must be a market for those too.

    Catalytic converters contain rhodium, one of the so-called platinum metals, and is actually a bit more expensive (IIRC) than platinum itself.

    Keep a good thought re your air bag loss, neo. With any luck the thieves will one day inadvertently trigger an air bag while leaning over the steering wheel trying to steal the air bag. At close range (instead of the usual distance at which a driver sits), that won’t be pretty.

  20. neo-neocon Says:

    Webutante: my insurance deductible is far less money than a parking garage would be for the duration of my stay.

    Also, the police said that, although they had quite a bit of this type of theft in this neighborhood a few years ago, I’m the first one they’ve had in years.

    But I do appreciate the sympathy!

  21. rickl Says:

    About 20 years ago my car was broken into while sitting in my driveway. Well, not “broken” into, since the doors were unlocked. I never leave valuables inside my car, not even CDs.

    He cleaned out the glove compartment, and made off with a Mag-Lite and a pair of prescription sunglasses. Since I’m extremely nearsighted, I’d have loved to have seen the look on his face when he tried them on.

  22. GoneWithTheWind Says:

    You may own the wrong car. Not every car is a target for this or theft it’s mostly the popular ones. I leave my car unlocked. It has been “prowled” in my own driveway but so far no broken windows.

  23. Parker Says:

    Sorry to hear about the damage to your car and the time, stress, and money this has cost you.

  24. J.J. formerly Jimmy J. Says:

    Gringo, I know that Giuliani instituted much tougher enforcement policies, but it is my impression that things have relaxed a lot under Bloomberg. Giuliani recently stated that he would never have allowed the OWS people to get a permit for camping out and would have very tightly enforced any minor lawlessness. Bloomberg certainly has a much more permissive attitude. It doesn’t take long for a the dirt bags to sense that things are not as tough as they were just a few years ago. They gravitate toward permissive law enforcement venues.

  25. Curtis Says:

    The weakling’s testimony:

    I loved.
    There was this person only once
    who sang my song, and
    resonated to my harmonies.

    I sang.
    The mood was changed only once
    while I was singing, and
    the song did not remain the same.

    I looked,
    only once,
    And found broken windows.

  26. effess Says:

    Was not aware that airbags have become the new target for car break-ins. Reminds of the time some 20+ years back when it was common to see quite a few parked cars with hand lettered “No Radio” signs on the drivers side window.

  27. Gringo Says:

    Re parking garage: A decade ago I parked my car at an open air parking garage near my cousin’s place in SoHo, for only $10/day. Last year, I again parked my car at the same place. The location which had the open air parking garage now had a five building for parking cars. The cost had gone up to $40/ day, though I later saw places which charged ~$30.

    J.J. formerly Jimmy J.: point taken.

  28. Gringo Says:

    That would be “five story building for parking cars.”

  29. model_1066 Says:

    Artfldgr Says:
    November 28th, 2011 at 6:48 pm :

    Never heard of the term “joyride”, have you?

  30. Sam P Says:

    I’ve had airbags stolen from my car about a decade ago. It was astoundingly expensive to fix, because the thieves ripped up the dash to get at the passenger side bag.

  31. Curtis Says:

    The real loss, of course, is not a car window. It is security and peace and the economy of a mind not having to consider attack. Broken only once, the peace is shattered and cannot, like Humpty Dumpty, be put back together again. The brokeness, of course, differs in quality and quantity, but not in name.

    We should remember the essential difference between the ancient and the christian world which gave protection to the weak.

  32. Doom Says:

    I am always sad to hear what happens to decent people this way. At least you were able to share some time with some genetically gifted family, and other family, before this happened. And you weren’t involved more personally.

  33. Beverly Says:

    Neo, I feel ya. Does your brother live in Park Slope?

    I had a real bomber of a car in Nashville, bought it for $200 bucks. But some piece of ordure hurled, of all things, a wooden child’s booster seat through my back windshield. Since this was a ’64 Chevy Nova (and this was 1981), I had to drive to a junkyard and buy a new windshield for $50. The random viciousness of the attack enraged me.

    A few months later, also in Nashville’s suburbs, my old junker was stolen. I simply could not believe it was gone. But some other pieces of ordure had taken it for a joyride when I was spending the night with a guy who turned out to be the rottenest boyfriend I ever had. Bad omen!

    Re crime in NYC: I just finished a two-week spell of Grand Jury duty in Manhattan. The jury warden told us, “I’ve been here for years. And I’ll tell ya: you always see the same cops coming in to give testimony. Only about TEN PERCENT of the cops do NINETY PERCENT of the arrests.”

    Which reminds me of the “firing rate” problem in warfare: a similarly low percentage of soldiers in any given army will actually fire their guns. Generals are always trying to get the firing rate of their men above 15%. I suspect everyone else is hunkering down and just trying to survive in one piece.

    And yeah, Bloomerpants is a real limp Noodle. And the crims know it. They’re getting bolder and ruder on the streets as well.

  34. Beverly Says:

    Just a thought: someone who could invent an effective taserlike device to zap car thieves could make a fortune.

  35. br549 Says:

    Had a car I no longer drove (waiting fior my oldest to come of age in a few months) stolen from the overflow lot where we lived at the time. A couple days later it was brought back and parked near the same spot, empty of fuel. The only damage was the key mechanism on the steering column. The car was wiped clean of prints. The police didn’t even find any of my own finger prints. I looked at my daughter and said, “If I find out which of your friends stole that car, there will be hell to pay.”

  36. Mr. Frank Says:

    This incident demonstrates the wisdom of locking people up for property crimes for an extended period of time. It’s what these guys do day in and day out. That’s why they can take out a radio or air bag in minutes. Property rights are essential to civilization.

  37. Libby Says:

    Sorry to hear about your theft, Neo. Last Monday my 70+ yr old mother was mugged as she entered a nearby upscale shopping mall. The thug rammed her hard from behind and then dragged her as she briefly clung to her purse. And to make it worse, my 8yr old son witnessed the crime (so much for a fun afternoon mall trip w/Nana). So she spent Thanksgiving week nursing a bruised and gashed cheek and badly swollen knees while reconciling all her lost credit cards, etc.
    Meanwhile, only miles away, Denver police were in full force watching over the OWS idiots.

  38. RickZ Says:

    I was on a grand jury hearing a conspiracy/auto theft ring case. We heard many hours of wiretaps (cell phone taps?). We heard a lot about popping balloons out of cars, along with the other ‘we got an order for a . . . ‘ stuff. They’d drive around in a van and pick up motorcycles, locking chains and all. But balloon theft was big as far back as 2000, when I heard this case. I read later where the ring was convicted.

  39. RickZ Says:

    Forgot: That grand jury case was in Queens, NY.

  40. neo-neocon Says:

    Libby: that’s terrible! So sorry your mother had to endure that.

  41. neo-neocon Says:

    Beverly: no, not Park Slope.

  42. Wolla Dalbo Says:

    It seems like I am fulfilling the classic role of the old curmudgeon here with my comments, but it seems obvious to me that when you no longer teach Judeo-Christian values in schools, and religion—and the values, ethics, expectations, and behaviors is taught–is pushed further and further to the margins of the public square, when our Universities, subverted and permeated by “Postmodern thought,” teach that there is no “Truth,” no “Right” or “Wrong,” that all is either random chance or the machinations of the oppressor against the oppressed, that there is no real purpose in Life, and that the “Good,” the ”True,” and the “Beautiful” don’t really exist. When what ethics there are left are largely “situational.” When your policing strategy dictates that you remove patrolmen–who were intimately familiar with, were close to, and often more readily available to protect the people of their neighborhoods, and who walked their beats daily–from the streets because it is not “efficient,” and go to the occasional police car passing by as your model. When your judicial system pays far more attention to the criminal and to his “rights” than to the victim of crime and to their well-being and to their “rights,” buys into the Marxist, economic view of crime, the excuse for crime that everyone is a victim of economic and social forces beyond their control and, thus, that no one is really responsible for their actions. When your legal and law enforcement establishments adopt a therapeutic instead of a punishment/deterrence approach to crime why, then, society degenerates, and the steady rise and spread of this kind of criminality–and much worse—are the very visible signs of that degeneration .

  43. Wolla Dalbo Says:

    Let me stipulate, too, that I do not believe that the 1940s-50s of my childhood were a mythical “Golden Age,” when everything was” perfect,” and just “hunky-dory.”

    What I do maintain is that–in many aspects of society–things were a lot more “hunky-dory” then, than they are today.

    And–to anticipate possible critical comments– segregation (something that I as a white person saw/experienced first hand when I was stationed in Mississippi and Alabama and traveled through the South during my time in the military) was not one of the good, “hunky-dory” aspects of the society of that era.

  44. Beverly Says:

    Wolla, you know that character-building and the moral code are SO five minutes ago!

    [I agree. Witness the odiously casual attitude toward school cheating, e.g.]

  45. A Sec Says:

    Wow, sorry to hear what happened to you neo. These thieves can be quick. This remindes me of what happened to a roommate once. We were living in Phoenix at the turn of the millenium and he had a honda civic. It was a time when import cars and racing was wildly popular because of those god-awful Fast and the Furious movies, but I digress. I remember I was returning from the on-site laundry mat after washing a load. Before I got to the apartment Remember seeing a suspicous looking dark blue suburban driving through the parking lot. I ignored it and just chalked up my uneasiness to being in a new city. I walked up to our second story appartment and promptly sat down on my spot on the couch to watch the 10 o’clock news. The broadcast had begun then suddenly we heard a car start and the screeching of two vehicles. My roomate jumed up from his chair, over my feet onto the coffee table and then to the balcony. I have never seen him move so fast and probably never will again. About the time he began screaming obscenities that would make a sailor blush I looked at the clock and saw it was three minutes past the hour. Eventualy he got his civc back. It had been abandoned in the downtown area and had been found sans his speakers, stereo, airbags and his bookbag with school books. All the windows were smashed and it smelled of urine. The police had stated that it was probably a part of a gang initiation and he was lucky it didn’t end up south of the border. His insurance replaced everything that was stolen except the textbooks, but he was happy and vowed it wouldn’t happpen again and had a 300$ alarm system installed with a kill switch. One month later he totalled it on the 101. Go figure.

  46. RandomThoughts Says:

    The real loss, of course, is not a car window. It is security and peace and the economy of a mind not having to consider attack.

    Exactly. Eldest Daughter came out of her apartment one day to find the passenger window of her beloved VW Beetle (parked in the building’s gated parking area) smashed in. She had nothing of value stolen, but the damage itself shook her.

    Libby, what happened to your grandmother is appalling. My heart goes out to her.

    And Wolla Dalbo, you wonderful curmudgeon, you are spot on right. The absence of moral teaching and direct enforced consequences to bad behavior has indeed shaped our society for the worse. We are suffering from the results every day.

  47. neo-neocon Says:

    Well, I lost that feeling of “peace and security” about my car long, long ago.

    This is the fifth car break-in I’ve had. The first was while parked at a tourist attraction (zoo) in northern Italy. The second was at a very upscale mall in Boston. The third was at the headquarters of the Boston School of Ballet. The fourth and fifth were parked near my brother, but the incidents were in different places in NY about 30 years apart.

    All but this most recent one were within about a five-year span long ago. And none of them featured leaving obvious valuables lying around. For most of them, there was nothing visible in the car at all. For the one in Italy, the thieves appeared to have had a master key that opened the trunk. For the one at the ballet school, the thieves smashed the window with a large rock (which I found on the floor of my car along with the glass) and stole a broken headlight that was on the floor, and an old semi-busted black umbrella. In some of the other thefts they got a good haul, however, because I had suitcases and other valuables in the trunk.

  48. Artfldgr Says:

    catalytic converters have platinum i them
    they have a recycle value for turning them in
    as with lead batteries and so on

    grow up poor like i did, and you will find out how much stuff worth money people just discard or dont even realize!!!

  49. Artfldgr Says:

    model_1066 Says:
    November 28th, 2011 at 11:42 pm

    Artfldgr Says:
    November 28th, 2011 at 6:48 pm :

    Never heard of the term “joyride”, have you?

    why yes
    and i am also aware of stealing cars for drag racing and other such things

    somethig that was rather popular in england using small cars and doing crazy things with them.

    but how many kids wander around looking into windows try8ing to find keys?

    they tend to go for older cars which can be hotwired… you know what that is, no?

    you try to hot wire a mercedes which needs the key chip to negotiate with the computer to start it?

    easier to steal parts…

  50. Artfldgr Says:

    Beverly Says:
    November 29th, 2011 at 3:55 am

    Just a thought: someone who could invent an effective taserlike device to zap car thieves could make a fortune.

    been done..
    its ILLEGAL

    but you can buy systems that put fire out from under the passenger doors
    and there is one that will lock and trap them
    and another that will taser a person touching the car

    among others…

    though i will point out that people who tend to want booby traps tend to get hurt by their own traps as they forget them momentarily…


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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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