BRANDON — The locations varied: a shopping center, an athletic facility, a driveway, a bar.
But one constant stood out: Drivers left valuables in plain view in their cars and thieves salivated.
In the second week of May, deputies at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office wrote 13 reports for vehicle burglaries in District 2, which encompasses much of east Hillsborough, Sgt. Steve Lewis said. Some weeks, the number climbs as high as 30, he said.
Law enforcement's simple plea to drivers: Lock your car doors and take your valuables with you.
"If they go by and don't see anything, they're not going to mess with your car," Lewis said. "But if it's in plain sight, they're going to take advantage."
For years, individuals — often in twos or threes — have been going through crowded parking lots or subdivisions and systematically checking door handles to see if a car is locked while one person acts as a lookout, Cpl. Tim Craig said.
More than half of the cases in 2013 involved unlocked cars, data from the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office show.
"It's an easy attempt at easy belongings," said Craig, who works out of the sheriff's District 1 office that covers most of north and central Hillsborough. "It's usually young juveniles that go around and try doors. It draws less attention (than breaking a window)."
But Lewis said deputies have seen their fair share of those cases as well, with a recent notable case at the Brandon Sports and Aquatic Center.
At about 7:30 p.m. May 7, culprits tried to break into five vehicles in the parking lot of the athletic facility. They successfully got into four — either through open doors or by breaking windows — and cracked the window of a fifth, but didn't get in.
They stole purses that were left in plain sight from all four vehicles, Lewis said.
"Please help us and yourselves by not leaving anything of value in plain view and by locking your vehicle at all times when leaving it unattended," Brandon Sports and Aquatic Center executive director Chuck Burgess wrote in an email to members. "This group is targeting specifically cars that have purses, wallets, iPads, iPhones, computers, etc. in plain sight where they can quickly pop a window and do a fast snatch and grab."
Burgess said the facility has been working with the Sheriff's Office and now has signs urging people to lock their vehicles and keep all valuables out of sight.
"Per our conversations, this is the number one crime in our area and one that can be avoided with due diligence," Burgess wrote.
Lewis said it can be a very frustrating crime for deputies.
"It happens in a matter of seconds," he said. "It's very difficult to stop from happening."
While any car can be a target, Craig said many perpetrators focus on vehicles parked at places such as gyms or movie theaters where the occupants will be inside for an extended period of time. Residents in gated communities also have been victimized, primarily because they often have a false sense of security and leave their cars unlocked.
Vehicles at locations such as fast-food restaurants are much less likely to be targets.
And while law enforcement works to track down suspects and reclaim stolen property, Craig said the best way to prevent these crimes is for people to be more conscientious about securing their cars and to take responsibility for protecting their things.
"There's no easy remedy except for the obvious," Craig said. "Lock your doors. Keep your valuables out of sight or take them inside with you."
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.