Leaving your car to warm up in the cold? It's an invitation to thieves

A Cedar Rapids police car. (Gazette file photo)
A Cedar Rapids police car. (Gazette file photo)

CEDAR RAPIDS — A Cedar Rapids man found out the hard way why it was not such a great idea to leave his vehicle warming up in the cold while he went back inside his apartment to take a shower.

He left the sport utility vehicle unattended Monday for 20 minutes in his apartment complex parking lot. When he came back outside, the SUV was gone.

Luckily, the man reported the theft immediately and police found a suspect in the Hyundai Tucson about 30 minutes later on J Street SW, Linn County Attorney Jerry Vander Sanden said Tuesday.

“I understand it’s tempting, especially in cold weather, to start your car and then go back inside. But these are 100 percent preventable crimes,” Vander Sanden said. “Many times it is a seasonal crime. But locally, there has been a 33 percent increase in stolen vehicles and nationally it’s 13 percent. This is a trend that started last year because people were leaving their keys or now a key fob, inside an unlocked car.”

Vander Sanden said these are crimes of convenience — meaning the thieves are looking for easy targets. They aren’t breaking into cars; just searching for unlocked cars with keys inside.

According to Cedar Rapids Police Department statistics:

• 2019: 425 vehicles were stolen; of those, 179 were left unattended and running

• 2020: 564 vehicles were stolen; 250 were left unattended and running

• 2021: As of Tuesday, there have been 24 vehicles stolen. Of those, 19 have been recovered.

Nationwide, an early analysis by the National Insurance Crime Bureau shows vehicle thefts took a “dramatic leap” last year when compared with 2019, reversing two years of declines.

The initial study showed there were over 873,000 thefts in 2020, a 9.2 percent increase over 2019, the bureau said.


Vander Sanden pointed out 20 incidents in Linn County involving stolen vehicles that turned into eluding cases when the suspect fled from police. Many resulted in crashes or damages to the vehicles when police used stop sticks to end the chases.

There also have been stolen vehicle cases that have resulted in more serious charges because firearms were left in a vehicle — which he noted could end up being used in another crime.

Vander Sanden said a state law that subjected people to fines for leaving cars unattained and running was changed. Nonetheless, he said, owners should still take care to not leave unattended vehicles running or leave car doors unlocked with the key fobs inside.

Greg Buelow, Cedar Rapids public safety spokesman, said the 103-year-old law that prohibited a vehicle from being left unattended and running was changed in 2017. The law now says it’s a violation to leave a vehicle unattended on a grade or hill without setting a brake and turning the wheels to an angle.

Buelow said one of the reasons for the change was that vehicles were more commonly becoming equipped with remote ignition starters. Drivers with remote start can warm up the car while it still is locked. But those cars can become a target for thieves if the doors are also unlocked.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau recommends:

• Use common sense. Remove keys from the ignition, lock doors and windows and park in well-lit areas.

• Install warning devices, including visible and audible alarms. Aftermarket alarms are available for all makes and models. Visual devices include column collars, steering wheel locks and brake locks.

• Immobilize devices such as smart keys; fuse cutoffs; kill switches; starter, ignition and fuel pump disablers; and wireless ignition authentication.


• Consider tracking devices, which are effective in helping authorities recover stolen vehicles. Some systems combine GPS and wireless technologies to allow remote monitoring.

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