SPOKANE, Wash. – Every year in Washington, thieves steal between 25,000 and 30,000 cars.
It is a huge problem that keeps police busy, leads to higher insurance rates and leaves the victims without a car.
If you live in Spokane the chances of having your car stolen are higher than in most other cities. According to The National Insurance Crime Bureau, in 2016 Spokane had the 11th highest per-capita car theft rate in the nation. In 2011, Spokane had the fourth highest per-capita car theft rate.
For more than 10 years Steve Sivertsen was addicted to meth. An addiction he fueled by stealing just about anything that was not bolted down, including cars. He estimates that he stole about 60 cars. Sivertsen's rap sheet includes everything from burglary and theft, to numerous drug-related charges, possession of stolen property, riot and escape.
In 2004, he made headlines after kicking the window out of a Geiger Corrections van and escaping. KREM 2 spoke with Sivertsen from jail after he was arrested a week later.
"It was pretty dumb. I didn't have a getaway plan. It was really stupid. I didn't think. I didn't realize I'd even done it until I was running away,” he said in that interview.
In all, Sivertsen spent roughly 11 years behind bars. He says that life is behind him now. He is sober and now lives a productive life, working to connect recently released inmates with housing.
KREM 2 asked Sivertsen to show us what car thieves look for and he agreed. We picked him up at his Spokane Valley home and went straight to Northeast Spokane. A neighborhood he said he and other addicts often targeted in the earlier morning hours when most people were asleep.
“We would fill a car up, a five-seat vehicle with four people, just wanting to steal cars, with a four or five-hour window. Any car warming up. Any car that's the right kind of year, or any car on the shopping list," Sivertsen explained.
He said that “shopping list” came from a network of other criminals. If someone was looking for a certain part, like a hood or bumper off a certain make or model of car, he and other addicts went searching. It was an opportunity to make a few hundred dollars to buy drugs.
They did not always have a specific car or part in mind. Often, he said they went searching for easy targets, like a car left unlocked, or warming up on a cold winter morning.
"The first one that calls the exhaust, jumps out, that's mine, that's mine and gets out and tries the door. If it’s a nice enough car, break the window and steal it,” he said.
According to the Spokane Regional Auto Theft Task Force, 2,652 were stolen in 2016 in Spokane County. So far in 2017, 1,743 have been stolen. The most commonly stolen car in Spokane is a mid-90's Subaru Legacy. In Spokane County, a mid-90's Honda Accord is the most common.
Sivertsen said older cars are easier to steal because the locks and ignitions are less complicated. They are easily opened and started with a shaved or worn-down key, referred to as a “jiggler keys” among thieves.
“A key that over time by no fault of its own had just worn down to be easily fit into like, per se, like a Honda. A wide variety of years and styles of Honda’s that key would work,” he explained.
He said there are car thieves who target high-end, new cars. He believes the majority of car thefts in Spokane are crimes of opportunity, driven by addiction. Thieves looking for an easy target to make a quick buck, or to simply find a means to get from one point to another. For him, it did not matter if the cars were parked on the street, in driveways, or the alley. He also did not care if the owner was home at the time. If he did not steal the car, he said he would often break windows to get anything that looked valuable inside. When you are an addict, the bar for what is valuable is pretty low.
"You know, if I'm hard up enough and I’ve walked by six cars with change, I know I've got 20 bucks, so I'm going to break your window at least," Sivertson said.
His advice to people: Don’t be an easy target. Lock your doors. Do not leave valuables like change, sunglasses or a purse in plain view. If you have a commonly stolen car, like a mid-90’s Honda, use a steering wheel lock, like the Club. Sivertsen said do not make the mistake of thinking your car is not valuable enough to steal. He said that just adds to the car theft and property crime problem plaguing Spokane.
"You would be surprised at how many cars, and cars of value, that people think don't have value, that they're not locking. So, lock your car doors, even the beater," he said. "Now, the community needs to be responsible and lock their doors on the cars they don't feel is valuable enough to lock, that's the problem right now. But that's adding to the problem.”
Also, do not leave the keys in your car. The National Insurance Crime Bureau found that from 2013 to 2015 that more than 147,000 cars were reported stolen with the keys left them in. Use common sense, lock your doors, close your windows and park in a well-lit area. Added layers of protection like alarms also help deter thefts.
Watch the full story tonight at 6 p.m. on KREM 2.