Carjackings, Delivery Vehicle Thefts Spike During Pandemic

By: - October 21, 2020 12:00 am

A food delivery driver loads a take-out order into her car at the Pike Place Market in Seattle in March. Carjackings and the theft of food delivery drivers’ vehicles have shot up in some cities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Elaine Thompson/The Associated Press

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Amid the pandemic, carjackings and thefts of unattended delivery vehicles have skyrocketed in some cities and counties.

Armed carjackers have victimized motorists at stoplights, parking garages and gas stations, according to police. Others have taken off in food delivery drivers’ idling cars while they’re picking up or delivering orders.

Law enforcement officials say the spike in so-called hop-ins can be traced to the explosion in customers ordering delivery during the pandemic.

“Criminals aren’t dumb,” said Officer Rick Goodale, a spokesperson for the Montgomery County Police Department in Maryland. “These are crimes of opportunity. They see a delivery driver’s car unattended and say, ‘OK, this is easy. We’ll just snatch it.’”

While law enforcement officials can’t say for sure why carjacking cases have multiplied in some areas of the country during the pandemic, they point to high unemployment, school closures and social unrest.

Carjackers take vehicles by force, often brandishing a weapon. Sometimes they steal the car with the victim inside.

“Carjacking is a violent crime,” said Christopher Herrmann, an assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. “It’s a very traumatic experience to have someone shove a gun in your face and rip you out of your car.”

The FBI doesn’t break out carjackings or thefts of delivery drivers’ vehicles, so there is no national data showing how often they’re occurring. Many police agencies don’t track that information either.

But police departments in some areas have been collecting those numbers. Among their findings:

  • In the District of Columbia, between March 1 and mid-October, carjackings and attempted carjackings jumped to 193 from 89 during the same period last year — a 117% increase, according to the Metropolitan Police Department.
  • In Louisville, Kentucky, carjackings shot up during that same period from 68 to 194 — or 185%, according to the Louisville Police Department. Officials in August created a joint federal, state and local task force to try to crack down on carjacking and prosecute more cases as a federal crime, which has stiffer penalties.
  • In Minneapolis, there were 51 carjackings between Sept. 22 and Oct. 14, according to the Minneapolis Police Department. Last month, the department created a new carjacking offense code for officers to use in their reports to track the cases. Previously, the cases could be filed under auto theft, robbery or aggravated robbery.
  • In Montgomery County, Maryland, thieves have stolen 18 delivery drivers’ vehicles since March 1, police said. Last year, there were four such thefts during that period. There also have been 24 carjackings, compared with 14 last year.

“During the pandemic, everyone is also wearing masks, which is concealing your identity,” Herrmann said. “This is a win-win for the car thief. And next to bank robbery, auto theft is a pretty good payoff.”

Carjacking Targets

Carjackers are hitting many different neighborhoods and victims of various ages and races.

“They’re targeting the cars, not the people,” said Commander Morgan Kane of Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department, which uses social media and video footage to try to track down carjacking suspects.

Some victims are stopped at intersections; others have their vehicle bumped from behind, in an accident ruse. Some are parked and may not be paying attention to their surroundings. Others are walking from their house to their car or getting something out of the trunk.

In Louisville, criminals have approached drivers at gas stations, saying they need money or help, said Officer Beth Ruoff, a Louisville Metro Police Department spokesperson. The victim tries to be a Good Samaritan and gives them money or lets them use a cellphone. Then the suspect forcibly takes the car.

Some carjackers who have struck during the pandemic have harmed their victims.

In Lakewood, Colorado, for example, a young man wearing a hat and a red cloth mask allegedly carjacked two women, ages 88 and 76, in a Lincoln sedan on Oct. 12 and then ran them over as he fled the scene. Both women were injured and taken to the hospital.

In Arlington County, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C., there have been eight reported carjacking cases from May through September, compared with one all of last year, said Ashley Savage, an Arlington County Police Department spokesperson.

Some of the victims were in parking garages, she said.

In July, Arlington police charged four suspects with carjacking after they allegedly assaulted a victim who was walking through a garage after parking his Honda Civic. They stole the car and his personal belongings.

Hours later, the Civic rear-ended a BMW at a red light, and when the driver got out to call police, one of the suspects struck her in the head, got into her car and fled, with the Civic following.

Law enforcement officials say drivers need to be aware of what’s going on around them.

“All too often, folks are not paying attention,” said Kane, of Washington’s Metropolitan Police. “That will get the attention of someone intent on committing a crime.”

One Washington resident, an Ethiopian activist, was in his Toyota Corolla streaming a live Facebook broadcast on human rights in late September when he was carjacked. One of the suspects was caught live on Facebook saying, “Get out of the car. Get out of the car. I’m not playing with you.”

During the pandemic, a number of young car thieves have been active.

In Nashville, Tennessee, for example, police arrested eight teens between 14 and 17 in May in connection with multiple carjackings. The suspects confronted victims at gunpoint in five incidents within two days and stole their cars, police said.

Minneapolis police in August arrested three suspects, two of them age 13 and one age 12, after a high-speed chase from St. Paul and across the city. The youths allegedly held a gun to the victim’s head and pepper-sprayed him before carjacking his Mercedes, which he had just parked outside his apartment.

Delivery Vehicle Thefts

Thieves who steal delivery drivers’ idling vehicles often travel in groups and comb the area for cars left running, police say. Some are on foot when they commit the crime. Others arrive in a second vehicle that pulls up alongside the victim’s car. The thief jumps into the unattended vehicle and takes off, all in a matter of seconds.

Within nine days in July, six food delivery drivers had their vehicles stolen in Suffolk County, New York, while they sought to fulfill phony delivery orders placed by the thieves.

In Washington, D.C., delivery drivers picking up orders in commercial areas filled with restaurants are particularly at risk, said the Metropolitan Police Department’s Kane.

Of the 373 auto thefts between Sept. 5 and Oct. 4, 42% were vehicles that were idling and unattended, and the majority were delivery drivers, according to police.

Police in some cities have issued warnings to delivery drivers, telling them to turn the car off, lock it and take their keys and fobs with them when they pick up or deliver orders.

Kane said her department has tried to get the word out using social media and flyers and appearing at virtual community meetings. But she said she’s frustrated that delivery companies and drivers aren’t getting the message.

“I’ve contacted Uber Eats. I’ve contacted Grubhub. I’ve contacted all of them,” she said. “I’ve told them they need to send a message to the cell phones of delivery drivers and say, ‘Lock the car and take your keys.’ It only takes a minute for their cars to get stolen.”

Carly DeBeikes, an Uber spokesperson, said in an email to Stateline that the company has made drivers aware of the risk and notified them of the safety measures they can take to help prevent car thefts.

Grubhub did not respond to requests for comment about delivery driver car thefts. A DoorDash spokesperson said the company doesn’t have data about the number of drivers who have had their vehicles stolen during a delivery, and that the company is only made aware when drivers or police report it.

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Jenni Bergal

Jenni Bergal covers transportation, infrastructure and cybersecurity for Stateline. She has been a reporter at Kaiser and the Center for Public Integrity.