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Car thieves find Toyotas easy marks

Hillsborough officers warn that youths have figured out a quick way to pick the locks on older Toyotas. And they are sharing the new skill with friends.

By AMY HERDY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 21, 2000


TAMPA -- The latest fad among young car thieves, police say, involves a method of stealing older model Toyotas that is literally a turn-key operation.

"They walk up, jiggle the door and open it," Hillsborough County sheriff's Detective Jim Moffitt said of thieves using altered keys on the cars. "It's become a sport. ... Now the girls are doing it."

Investigators with the Sheriff's Office and Tampa Police Department say that within the past several weeks, young people ranging in age from 12 to 18 have been stealing 1993 and older Toyotas by the dozens simply for joyriding. The two departments report about 100 Toyota thefts since January.

"It's usually from Point A to Point B, like here to the beach," Moffitt said. "They'll steal another one to come back with."

Officials did not want to advertise just how the keys are modified to become essentially master keys for older Toyotas, but the word is getting out on the street faster than investigators can make arrests, they say.

"Once we arrest these couple of kids, they've already taught another couple," Moffitt said. His Hillsborough sheriff's district, which covers the University of South Florida area, has investigated about 25 cases of stolen older-model Toyotas since January.

He sees the situation worsening, and other investigators agree.

"They're teaching more kids," said sheriff's Detective R.E. Moye, who has also seen about 25 such cases so far this year in his district near Citrus Park in northwestern Hillsborough County. . "It's a trend."

The favorite target appears to be the Camry, Moffitt said, just as it is among thieves throughout the country.

According to CCC Information Services, which tracks national trends in auto theft, the most stolen car in the United States last year was the 1989 Toyota Camry, followed by '90, '91 and '88 models.

Toyota officials say they are aware of the situation and changed the door lock design in the mid 1990s.

"Part of the lock cylinder reads only one side of the key in older models," said Toyota spokeswoman Ming-jou Chen. "In newer models, it reads both sides of the key, making it virtually pick-proof."

Chen said she did not know the full extent of the modified-key thefts by teens or whether it has been reported as a specific problem in other cities.

Locally, officials expressed most surprise at the fact that girls, as well as teenage boys, are stealing the cars. Police blame the simplicity of the method.

"We're seeing mostly kids, ages 13, 14, up to 17, 18 years old," said Tampa police Detective Marty Smith, whose squad has investigated 49 Toyota Camry thefts since Jan. 1.

"They come from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds," Smith said. "Everybody's doing it."

So far, officials say they have made about a dozen arrests, but as most of the suspects are juveniles, they usually get back on the street quickly.

So what can the owners of older Toyotas do?

"If you have a '93 or older Toyota, you need to have a Club on or something," suggested Moffitt, referring to a steering wheel locking device.

Buy a kill switch for your car, he said, or an alarm, or the anti-theft device of your choice, but do something soon.

"This thing's picking up steam."


-- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

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