March 11, 2010

Sticker thieves targeting city cars

DAVID HENCH

— By

Staff Writer

PORTLAND — Jack Rent is beyond frustrated.

Last week, he arrived at work to find the 15-passenger van his business uses to transport little children had its windshield and a window broken. He knew why.

This was the sixth time somebody had broken into the van, causing almost $500 in damage, to steal the inspection sticker off the windshield.

''It's absolutely infuriating,'' said Rent, who operates the Back Cove School, a child care center on Ocean Avenue.

''That's almost $3,000 in the last year,'' he said of the vandalism, which routinely amounts to just less than his insurance deductible.

Police say the theft of inspection stickers has become a chronic problem in Portland, with at least 35 cases in recent months.

The thieves typically smash a side window to get in, said Lt. Tony Ward, head of detectives for the Portland Police Department. One person uses a hand-held blowtorch to heat up the windshield, loosening the sticker's glue, while an accomplice peels the sticker from the inside, being careful not to shred it.

The intense heat of the torch often cracks the windshield glass, he said.

''We've had minimal luck trying to resolve these,'' said Ward. ''We have some investigative leads we're following. Obviously, this is a challenging case to obtain physical evidence on.''

Why would somebody go through all that work to swipe an $18 inspection sticker?

Probably because it can save someone hundreds or even thousands of dollars in important repairs needed to get an inspection sticker legitimately.

In other states where people have been arrested for stealing inspection stickers, the stolen stickers were going for $50 to $100 to people whose exhaust system or brakes didn't measure up.

State police say the sticker thefts seem to be a Portland phenomenon that hasn't showed up in other parts of the state.

Most car burglaries target valuables left inside a car -- everything from electronics to spare change in the ashtray, police say. Vehicles have been targeted for other reasons, though.

When scrap metal dealers were paying top dollar, thieves would cut catalytic converters off car exhaust systems to sell them for the platinum contained inside.

Cumberland County recently had an incident where a thief broke into a pickup to remove the airbag.

In recent months, inspection stickers have been the item of choice in Portland, particularly in the Washington Avenue and Ocean Avenue areas, which have seen several sticker thefts. Cars at the Spurwink School have been among those targeted, Ward said.

Rent's experience is by far the worst, with his first broken windshield occurring about eight months ago and the most recent discovered March 31.

Safety tips? Ward said there isn't much he can recommend for vehicle owners to protect themselves from inspection sticker theft. Owners could buy a vehicle alarm system, but typical safety strategies, like parking in a well-lit spot, haven't always helped.

In Rent's case, the van -- painted with its school logo -- has been targeted in the well-lit commercial parking lot near the business. In each case, the damage was discovered Monday morning.

The best solution, he found, was asking an employee who lives nearby to keep it parked at her house, though there wasn't room during the winter.

Nothing has been stolen besides the inspection stickers.

''There isn't anything to take,'' Rent noted. ''The only thing in that van to take is car seats for kids, and once there was $2 in change in the cup holder.''

Rent said police responded with investigators and evidence technicians the first time it happened, probably because there was a rock that had been thrown through the window and blood from where a thief had been cut.

''We didn't even realize the inspection sticker was taken until the police officers arrived,'' he said. Since then, officers have reacted fatalistically, he said.

Rent figures that the combined damage of dozens of such incidents amounts to many thousands of dollars.

Police say they have sent biological evidence to the state police crime laboratory for analysis and conducted their own fingerprint work, but there have been no arrests so far.

The stickers are sequentially numbered and show a vehicle's identification number, but an officer wouldn't be likely to check that during a traffic stop unless the vehicle had a fresh sticker and was clearly uninspectable, Ward said.

Victims have no choice on whether to have their windshields replaced. Otherwise, their vehicles won't pass inspection.

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com

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