Bait Cars Prove Successful in Preventing Auto Theft

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COLUMBIA - Auto theft in Columbia has decreased by nearly half since 2007 when a bait car program began, according the former police officer who started it.

The ordinariness of the cars is what makes the program so successful, said Steve Brown, who still works with the Columbia Police Department as a civilian.

"I try to make them look like any other car on the street."

Some bait cars are planted with valuables and the doors are sometimes left unlocked with the keys in the ignition to make them attractive to criminals. If someone enters the car a hidden camera will capture their face so if they take anything the police can easily tract them down.

"We had a trend that was going on of an increase of a substantial amount of theft of motor vehicles, it was something that was becoming a problem in the city," he said.

Brown would not allow KOMU 8 News to view any of the cars used, but did show some grainy footage from a hidden camera inside one of the vehicles.

In cases when someone drives away in a bait car, officers use a GPS locator to find the car. They can also control the locks, horn and even turn off the engine all from a computer program.

In 2007, 2.30 cars of every 1,000 in Columbia were stolen. By 2009, the number was down to 1.29 and remained steady.

Brown said the program is no secret. He said he wants criminals to know about it because deterrence is a part of the program's success.

But, he also said the biggest factor in preventing motor vehicle thefts is the community and car owners. That's a lesson University of Missouri student Nicholas Colbert learned quickly.

After watching his friend's car get stolen, he now takes the proper precautions to keep the same thing from happening to him.

"I make sure I always lock the car doors and roll the windows all the way up before leaving it unattended," he said.