July is one of the hottest months in Texas, with temperatures soaring into the 100s, leaving Texans to battle the stifling heat. But the seventh month of the year is also the “hottest” for car thieves.

Gary King, East Texas Auto Theft Task Force investigator, said July has proven to be the busiest time for those wanting to steal unsuspecting motorist’s’ vehicles.

“The largest age group arrested for car theft is 15-19 years old. I think it’s because the kids are out of school and have free time on their hands to commit crimes,” he said.

King said that car theft in Texas costs more than any other crime.

Car thefts in 2004 cost Texans $757,670,324 and in the 13 counties covered by the East Texas Auto Task Force the cost was $13,099,112.

Smith and Gregg counties lead the area with a combined total of 964 vehicles stolen in 2004.

“This is a lucrative business and we (auto task forces across the state) are out here trying to recover as many vehicles as we can,” he said. “Car theft is so big in Texas and we all know how expensive cars are today. So it doesn’t surprise me that car theft is the costliest crime in the state.”

The top 10 vehicles stolen in Texas are Chevrolet pickups, Ford pickups, Dodge pickups, Honda Accord, Honda Civic, GMC pickups, Toyota Camry, Ford Taurus, Chevrolet Tahoe and the Oldsmobile Cutlass.

King said although professional car thieves hit the newer model vehicles, the largest number of stolen cars are older models that are not equipped with alarm systems and anti-theft devices.

King said vehicle owners can help deter thefts by installing alarm systems or using other anti-theft devices or by registering their vehicle under the Help End Auto Theft (HEAT) program.

The HEAT program allows officers to pull a vehicle over during certain times of the night to check ownership of the vehicle. Most cars are stolen between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m.

Stickers mark the vehicles and during the registration process, which is free, motorists can also have the vehicle identification numbers etched on all the windows.

King said the HEAT program is an effective tool at preventing theft.

“Out of the thousands of vehicles we have registered in the eight years I have been with the task force we have not had one of those vehicles stolen. Thieves, even the joyriders know that the car is registered and can be pulled over to check ownership. The program works,” he said.

King said between 10 and 20 percent of all stolen vehicles turns out to be insurance fraud, where the owner either pays someone to steal and set fire to their vehicle or they do it themselves.

He said some vehicles are targeted for chop shops while others make their way to Mexico or larger cities where they could be stripped and sold for parts or the VIN is changed and the vehicle is resold.

Prime locations for car theft?

King said gas stations and even day care facilities, where unsuspecting mothers are dropping their children off are two of the prime locations because people leave their vehicles running.

“In our task force we recover about 80 percent of all stolen vehicles, but for the other 20 percent of drivers who have their vehicle stolen, they never see it again. People need to lock their cars and use some type of deterrent to prevent theft,” he said.

Kenneth Dean covers police, fire, public safety organizations, Cherokee and Rusk counties. He can be reached at 903.596.6353. e-mail: news@tylerpaper.com