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Auto thefts are largely down, but police message is the same: take keys, lock doors

Lock your car doors. Take your keys with you.

It's a common refrain from law enforcement, but as police continue to work to reduce and prevent car thefts, it's their most important message to drivers.

And, in Pinellas County's two largest cities, it appears that message is getting through. After a rise in auto thefts between 2014 and 2015, St. Petersburg police have seen a nearly 43 percent drop in cases during the first six months of this year compared with the same period last year. Clearwater police have dealt with 34 percent fewer auto thefts.

But in the cities and unincorporated areas of the county where the Sheriff's Office has jurisdiction, auto thefts remain a problem. Through June 2015, the Sheriff's Office worked 230 such cases. During the same period this year, they handled about 400.

"It's all about keys being left behind," Pinellas sheriff's auto theft unit Sgt. Ken Luth said. "The days of people breaking steering columns and shoving screwdrivers into the ignition … those days are in the past."

Luth said of all auto theft cases the Sheriff's Office has handled this year, all but about 10 have involved thieves simply opening an unlocked car and finding a key inside.

St. Petersburg police Maj. Cheryl Johnson credits a more proactive approach and a new violent crimes task force for the city's drop in stolen cars. The task force, she said, allows for more continuous investigation and prevention measures, and supplements the department's existing auto theft unit.

Johnson also said St. Petersburg police have increased social media use to remind people to secure their cars, something Clearwater police have also done.

"We've been doing a lot of work with our public information, doing a lot of work with the community," Clearwater police Sgt. Ramon Cosme said. For example, detectives last month canvassed neighborhoods checking for unlocked doors and open garages, and gave Tampa Bay Rays ticket vouchers to people who locked their cars.

Despite more social media reminders and a drop in auto thefts, the patterns remain the same. Police still see a rise in stolen cars during the summer, when youths are out of school. Teenagers remain the main offenders and often roam neighborhoods, lifting door handles until they find an unlocked car.

"A lot of these kids just need a ride, find a car and take it out for a joyride for a little while and then dump it," Cosme said.

Some teens even appear to be targeting higher-end cars with push-start ignitions, Luth said.

"Kids are getting picky sometimes," he said. "I think they're turning down some cars and going for fancier ones."

In most cases, vehicles are recovered and returned to the owners within a few days, Luth said. Still, he said, law enforcement can do only so much.

"It's hard to be proactive when people are leaving the keys in the car," he said.

This is especially true when people leave their cars running and unattended.

"You're just giving it to them" if you leave your car running, Johnson said. "I would suggest don't leave your car running with the keys in it, and please lock your doors."

Even leaving your car unattended for a few moments can lead to trouble, Cosme said.

"Make sure that there are no extra keys in the car, never leave it unlocked, and never leave it running, even if you're just running into the convenience store for just a second," he said.

Contact Jack Rooney at jrooney@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4159. Follow @RooneyReports.

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