Friday, June 13, 2008 | While the overall number of property crimes committed in San Diego County’s largest cities has generally been dropping since 2003, one property crime has remained stubbornly persistent: Motor vehicle theft.

The number of motor vehicles stolen in San Diego, Chula Vista, Escondido and Oceanside has been creeping up steadily since the beginning of the decade, according to FBI crime statistics. Last year, the number of motor vehicles stolen in Chula Vista spiked almost 18 percent. In Escondido, it increased almost 14 percent.

Investigators at the county’s Regional Auto Theft Task Force said part of that overall trend is due to an accelerating rate of motorcycle thefts. Motorcycles have increasingly been targeted by local thieves, they said, who typically transport the motorcycles into Mexico, where they are either dismantled for parts or sold in big cities in Mexico’s interior.

Local law enforcement officials and security experts said there’s no one easy explanation for the upward shift in motorcycle thefts in recent years, which is also a national trend. One expert said the increase could be because of lagging efforts by the motorcycle industry to install security technology on bikes. Another said a boom in the popularity of bikes, fueled by baby boomers and Hollywood movies, could be to blame.

And, looking forward, a novel concept has been gaining momentum: That the recent spike in gas prices could provide the already burgeoning trend with an additional shot in the arm, as sales of motorcycles increase and demand for the gas-sipping machines grows among consumers and criminals alike.

“If there is an increase in gas prices, like there has been, and there is an increase in motorcycle purchases, you’ll have an increased demand because the guys selling the stolen bikes will tell the crooks that they need more of them,” said Det. Martin Bolger, who studies motorcycle thefts for the Regional Auto Theft Task Force, a consortium of local law enforcement agencies.

Motorcycles typically get at least twice as many miles per gallon as most cars. For example, a 2006 Kawasaki Ninja gets about 45 mpg, compared to a 2006 Ford Mustang, which gets 17 mpg on city streets and 26 mpg on the highway.

Motorcycle thefts in San Diego County increased 16 percent between 2004 and 2007 and increased 11.5 percent between 2006 and 2007, according to the California Highway Patrol.

A 2005 study completed by the insurance company Progressive ranked San Diego third in the nation on a list of large cities where motorcycles are likely to be stolen.

But San Diego isn’t the only city experiencing a boom in motorcycle thefts. According to figures Bolger compiled from the National Insurance Crime Bureau, a nonprofit that works with insurance companies and law enforcement agencies to combat insurance crime, motorcycle thefts rose 135 percent nationwide between 2000 and 2005.

Until recently, the growing problem of motorcycle thefts in San Diego County probably hasn’t been related to swelling gas prices, Bolger said. He said he doesn’t really know why more bikes are being stolen now than a decade ago.

“My only guess is that it’s word of mouth — motorcycle thieves are telling their friends that there is an unlimited supply of these bikes and that it’s easy money,” he said.

Robert McCrie, a professor of security management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, said Bolger’s hunch is correct. McCrie said criminals nationwide have learned over time that motorcycles are easy prey. They’re relatively simple to steal and the penalties for getting caught are usually less than those for stealing a car, because most motorcycles aren’t valuable enough for the theft to be considered a felony, he said.

As motorcycle theft has become more rampant, McCrie said, motorcycle manufacturers have lagged in providing adequate security technology for their products. That’s unlike the auto industry, he said, where a string of new security devices and ever-more sophisticated alarms have helped to combat growing numbers of car thefts.

Sgt. Jim Kistner of the San Diego Police Department’s Auto Theft Unit said stealing motorbikes is relatively easy. Usually motorbikes are simply picked up and put in the back of a truck or on a trailer, he said. Or thieves may remove the cylinder lock of the ignition by force or plug in a separate ignition switch and simply drive the motorcycle away. In San Diego County, most bikes are ridden away, Bolger said.

“Why should we be surprised? The motorcycle companies haven’t focused on providing better security for their customers,” McCrie said.

Stuart Henry, a professor of criminal justice and director of the School of Public Affairs at San Diego State University, said motorbikes have also boomed in popularity of late, with growing numbers of baby boomers buying expensive bikes and young buyers flocking to sports bikes in the wake of Hollywood movies like “The Fast and the Furious.”

Local dealers said motorcycle sales have been strong in recent years as the region’s real estate market boomed and homeowners tapped into their equity to purchase expensive toys like sports bikes. That demand has taken a hit in the last two years, some of the dealers said, but it’s starting to perk up as gas has reached and exceeded $4 a gallon on average.

“At $3 a gallon, people were interested in looking at our bikes, but weren’t yet ready to make the lifestyle change to owning one. Now, with gas at $4.50 or $5, people are willing to make that change and are starting to buy,” said Sean Warner, sales manager at House of Motorcycles in San Diego.

Gaylen Brotherson, CEO of the National Motorcycle Dealers Association, said there’s little doubt that increasing gas prices will not just lead to increased sales of motorcycles, but will lead to motorcycle owners using their bikes more, not just for sport but for everyday transportation.

“Even today I saw three girls, separate from each other, riding to work on Vespas,” he said. “Maybe gas has got to the point where people are riding their motorcycles more, I know I am. It cost me $100 to put three quarters of a tank of gas in my truck yesterday. I can get 40 miles to the gallon on my bike. My truck gets 16.”

The resurrection in sales and the increase in motorcycle use, combined with the financial hardship higher gas prices brings, has experts concerned that motorcycle theft could kick up a notch in the coming months.

“Sure, the more bikes that are out there, that simply means there are more targets out there,” said Frank Scafidi, a spokesman for the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

Kistner said he’s already seen a spike in motorcycle thefts since the beginning of the year. But he said it’s still too soon to see whether the higher gas prices are going to keep his team busy in coming months and years.

Please contact Will Carless directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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