Sep 2, 2012 3:34 PM by AP
PHOENIX - The Phoenix metropolitan area led the nation in automobile thefts less than a decade ago. Last year, Phoenix ranked 60th among 366 metro areas in that category.
Police credit the dramatic decrease to creation by the state Legislature of the Arizona Automobile Theft Authority, which trains a task force of police officers, funds prosecutors who specialize in auto-theft cases and provides bait cars that lure would-be thieves.
The goal of the authority is to increase arrests and bolster criminal cases against perpetrators.
Statistics from the National Insurance Crime Bureau show that 13,132 vehicles - or about 308 cars per 100,000 residents - were stolen in the Phoenix metro area last year.
By comparison, 1,089 cars per 100,000 residents were stolen in 2002, bureau spokesman Frank Scafidi told The Arizona Republic.
In addition to the work done by the authority, anti-theft devices such as smart keys and LoJack help authorities track stolen cars and deter criminals.
While the auto theft drop is significant, officials say there is still work to be done.
Glendale led the Phoenix area's 10 largest municipalities in auto thefts on a per capita basis in 2011, according to crime data submitted by police departments.
Phoenix ranked second, followed by Tempe, Avondale and Mesa. Surprise was ninth and Gilbert was last on the list at No. 10.
While most of the municipalities reflect the decade-long downward trend in thefts, Surprise and Glendale saw auto thefts and attempted thefts increase marginally from 2010 to 2011.
J.D. Hough, a special investigator with the authority, said one common thread among top-ranking cities is they all have major shopping centers with easy freeway access.
Hough said malls provide thieves with a variety of vehicles, a quick getaway on the freeways and an opportunity to work unnoticed as victims are away from their cars for a while taking in a movie, having dinner or shopping.
"They know that it's going to be several hours before it's reported stolen, so they have less chance of being caught," he said.
Scafidi echoed Hough's comments, saying a mall or sports stadium is the perfect place to steal a car.
"Places where there's a great concentration of vehicles are prime," he said. "It just makes sense you don't have to go traipsing around neighborhoods where you might generate suspicion."
Brian Salata, executive director of the auto-theft authority, said stolen cars, trucks and vans are most likely destined for use in other crimes -- mainly smuggling and for use as getaway vehicles.
Criminals use stolen cars in other crimes because they can't be traced back to them.
"If you're going to rob a bank, you don't take your mom's car," Salata said.
He said traditionally, the No. 1 use for stolen vehicles was smuggling - specifically ferrying guns and money into Mexico and drugs and people into the United States.
Nowadays, thieves are more likely to send stolen vehicles to so-called chop shops, where the parts will be stripped and sold, or to scrap-metal dealers, where they'll be shredded into metal confetti and shipped overseas to China, which has a lack of raw materials.