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Carjacking epidemic in Memphis shows most unsettling side of soaring auto thefts

John Ehemann was visiting one of his regular clients, an Exxon station in downtown Memphis, one morning this past October. On the way in, he noticed a man in a reflective safety vest sitting on an oil drum outside but thought little of it.

As the 67-year-old food product salesman returned to his pickup truck after the meeting, the man approached from behind, hit him in the head, then spun him around and punched him in the eye. The attacker grabbed the keys to Mr. Ehemann’s 2004 GMC Sierra and drove off in it.

“I was bleeding pretty profusely,” Mr. Ehemann recounted. “It wasn’t a fair game.”

He had come face to face with one of the U.S.’s most unsettling crime epidemics. Carjacking and its far more common cousin, auto theft, have spiked in recent years. And car thefts have continued to rise even as pandemic-era increases in homicides and other offences have abated.

An FBI aggregation of local crime data showed a 10-per-cent year-over-year increase in auto theft in the third quarter of 2023, even as it showed a more than 15 per cent decline in murders. A report by the Council on Criminal Justice, a think tank, using data from 34 U.S. cities, showed car thefts up 29 per cent last year.

Numbers on carjackings are harder to come by because not every city reports them. The Council on Criminal Justice report shows instances of the crime up 93 per cent across 10 cities between 2019 and 2023, with a slight reduction over the past year.

Paul Richardson, a Memphis youth outreach worker, says many carjackings and auto thefts are done in the service of other crimes. Dodge Challengers and Chargers are favoured for their powerful engines; Infinitis for being small and swift. They are used for “sliders,” Mr. Richardson said, another term for drive-by shootings. Some are also sold to chop shops on the outskirts of town. “Those cars have purposes. They target certain cars to do something with.”

Gang culture has also changed, he said. Where once Memphis was dominated by a few major criminal organizations, there are now scores of small cliques with overlapping territories and more opportunities for violent clashes. “The new age is carjacking and scamming and cliques going against cliques,” he said.

Kias and Hyundais are particularly popular targets because many U.S. models lack engine immobilizers, an anti-theft measure that requires the owner’s key fob be nearby for the car to start. This means thieves can start these cars by removing the top of the ignition switch and turning it with a USB stick. Videos by Milwaukee car thieves calling themselves the Kia Boyz exposed this gaping security flaw in the summer of 2022 and demonstrated how to exploit it.

Canada and other countries require that car manufacturers install immobilizers, but the U.S. does not.

Delvin Lane, who runs a city-backed gang exit program, says car thieves also use devices bought online that can intercept the code used for keyless entry and ignition. It’s typical for a particular crew to get good at stealing cars and then sell them to other gangs for as little as US$300 to US$400. The members of these cliques often start very young.

“You’ve got girls who are 11, 12, 13 years old, who can’t even drive, cranking up cars with key fobs,” he said.

Jeff Asher, a data analyst, says the Kia and Hyundai thefts explain virtually the entire increase. The spikes in most cities began around the same time the Kia Boyz videos went viral.

Carjackings are more mysterious. The figures that are available don’t show a consistent pattern. Some cities, such as New Orleans, saw a sharp drop last year. In others, the crime spiked. “There wasn’t a signal there when looking at the data,” Mr. Asher said.

Ernesto Lopez, a researcher at the Council on Criminal Justice, has had similar difficulty with the numbers. He expected carjackings would go up as auto thefts went down or vice versa – that making it harder to steal parked cars could prompt some criminals to carjack instead, for instance. But the data didn’t show such a correlation. Nor do the numbers on carjackings appear to follow those on similar crimes, such as armed robberies. “It’s a puzzle,” Mr. Lopez said.

He also says that Kia and Hyundai security vulnerabilities likely do not account for the entire vehicle theft trend; Canada has seen a rise in stolen cars despite requiring engine immobilizers in new cars since 2007.

In Memphis, auto thefts nearly doubled last year to more than 15,800. There were 362 carjackings – down from 445 the previous year, but higher than the 287 in 2020. Last month, a 14-year-old boy was arrested for carrying out eight carjackings in a three-week period.

Washington, meanwhile, has seen a staggering spike: 951 carjackings in 2023, up from 484 the previous year. Victims have included Representative Henry Cuellar, an FBI agent and an off-duty police officer. The consequences have often been deadly. In October, a 13-year-old boy was shot dead by a man he was trying to carjack. Last month, a carjacker killed two men in five attacks over a single night.

Such incidents have made the crime particularly visible. They could also be helping influence political perceptions. Despite the fact crime rates overall have been falling nationally over the past two years, a Gallup poll in October found that more than 90 per cent of Republican voters and slightly fewer than 60 per cent of Democrats believed crime had gotten worse over the previous year.

In Mr. Ehemann’s case, the improbable attack had an even more improbable conclusion.

A little more than a week after he was carjacked, police 150 kilometres away in Arkansas spotted his truck on an interstate highway. The officers happened to be carrying a crew from On Patrol: Live, a reality television show, with them. Footage shows the driver, wearing a reflective vest, drive down an embankment, get out and try unsuccessfully to flee by swimming across a creek.

To Mr. Ehemann, the whole thing remains as baffling as it does to the experts.

“I’ve been calling on that store for 10 years and never would have thought that would happen,” he said. “Ten o’clock in the morning, you know? That’s the bizarre thing.”

Have you had your car stolen? Are you taking steps to prevent it from happening?

As vehicle thefts become more frequent, The Globe wants to hear from readers about their experiences. Has your car been stolen? Were you able to get it back? Do you know the details of how your car was stolen? Have you had a close call? Share your experience or steps you’ve taken to avoid it below.

This article was originally published by a www.theglobeandmail.com . Read the Original article here. .

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