Some Florida communities are seeing a rise in the number of crimes done by tire thieves, who jack up cars at lightning-fast speed and leave them on cinder blocks.
Paula Montesarchio, 55, didn’t even get a chance to start her day. She answered her door, half-asleep and confused, when a Davie police officer knocked at 4:30 a.m. A man had been seen lurking around her condo and when the cops arrived, they found Montesarchio’s Nissan 370Z stripped of all four tires and rims and left amputated on a paver.
The theft of her tires this summer was hard to process.
“I had to take pictures to look at and see what just happened to me,” she said.
Trying to catch tire thieves is like playing “whack-a-mole,” says Miami-Dade Police Detective Lee Cowart.
“I’ve seen organized groups go from one (city) to another to another, very professional with hydraulic jacks and air compressors to take the lug nuts off,” Cowart said. There also are the not-so-career criminals, “maybe a teenager or young adult who’s working by himself and just sees that as a way to make some money, illegally.”
Among the cities reporting an uptick in thefts is Sunrise, which had 56 tire heists from January through August. That’s a jump from the 12 thefts that happened during the same period last year. Two arrests were made in March.
In Plantation, 25 tire burglaries happened in all of 2017, while the tally so far this year is at 40. Only one arrest has been made this year, police said.
Some cities have experienced the problem but it hasn’t resulted in any arrests this year.
Among them are Coconut Creek, which had 42 thefts during the first five months of this year; Margate, with 22 thefts this year, and Lauderhill, with 24 cases.
Thieves generally make off with all four tires, and they work fast.
“If you watch NASCAR, they change tires and refuel a car in 15 seconds,” Cowart said. “I don’t think they’re NASCAR-quick, but they have pretty much the same equipment.” They “can be very, very quick.”
The theft of tires is a decades-old type of crime that has boomed, thanks in part to thieves’ ability to sell the ill-gotten goods through the internet. The tires can be sold online, or to shops that specialize in selling used car parts. And it’s nearly impossible to prove they were stolen, said Sunrise Police Officer spokesman Chris Piper.
“It’s hard to get cooperation or work with us,” Piper said of stores that sell used rims and tires. “It’s hard to prove they know the property is stolen.”
Some odd tire-theft moments have happened. In a recent case, a thief stole a tire and rim from a 2005 Honda Civic LX parked in a handicapped spot at an assisted-living facility on Yamato Road in West Boca, then graciously replaced it with a doughnut, or temporary spare tire.
“These cases are difficult to follow up on as there are no witnesses or surveillance videos to assist with the investigation,” said Palm Beach County sheriff’s spokeswoman Teri Barbera, whose agency investigated the Yamato Road case. And “most stock tires and rims are difficult to trace.”
The thieves are determined, experts say.
The Broward Sheriff’s Office arrested three people in May for stealing tires off Toyota Corollas in Oakland Park. They went to jail, bonded out, and then were again arrested for doing the same thing to a Honda Accord just three days later in Deerfield Beach, according to the agency.
Michigan is one of the few states trying to help law enforcement track the sales of stolen tires with new laws.
In 2016, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed legislation that requires a dealer purchasing or receiving any used tires, tire wheels or rims or tire tread to only pay for those items with a check, money order, bank draft or direct deposit.
Help Eliminate Auto Thefts, or H.E.A.T., is a Michigan organization funded by insurance companies that pushed for the legislation.
“There weren’t many great ways for officers to locate where the thefts were coming from, where they were originating from and who was doing it,” said Colleen Murie, H.E.A.T. program coordinator. The legislation “puts a paper trail in effect. The idea was to cut down on wheel and rim theft.”
Officials haven’t yet been able to quantify the effectiveness of the new law, but there are other efforts in motion.
The tire industry supports legislation prohibiting the sale and installation of “unsafe” used tires, and some states are pursuing that, said Dick Gust, spokesman for the Maryland-based Tire Industry Association.
The idea is to give law enforcement another tool to fight dishonest dealers.
He estimates the resale of stolen tires is a $1 million a year industry, “and I think it’s more than that,” Gust said. “There’s a big underworld of theft. It’s a very frustrating situation – it’s almost overwhelming. You (arrest) this guy and tomorrow there’ll be another guy. It’s a fight constantly.”
In Florida, car shops that sell used wheels don’t have regulations, unlike pawn shops, which are regulated and sellers have to give ID and a fingerprint.
In 2013, there was an attempt to have legislation passed in Florida to outlaw the sale of unsafe used tires, but those efforts failed.
Well-known state lobbyist Ron Book said future attempts to get a new law passed would be difficult, because the current state Legislature “is very conservative” and looks for “less regulation.”
Montesarchio, the Davie woman whose tires were stolen in July, remains vigilant on her own. There were no arrests in her case.
On the advice of the police, she has bought a new car alarm, as well as locking lug nuts that require a special key to remove them.
Now, she also parks her car with its wheels turned at an angle, to make removing them more difficult.
At night, she can’t help but wake up and check on her car.
“Every night at 3:30, I get up and look at the car. At 5, I get up and look at the car,” she said.
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