The Manchester Township, York County resident’s vehicle was where it should have been in front of her house on the night of Sept. 10. Then, a person walked along the street, entered the vehicle and drove away.

About 30 minutes later, it was found engulfed in flames.

The owner may have been dismayed by that turn of events, but she’s in good company in both York and Cumberland counties. Over the past decade, there have been an average of 70 attempted or completed motor vehicle thefts in Cumberland County each year, according to the Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Reporting System.

Experts say many victims make it easy for the thief by leaving the door unlocked and the keys in the car. Despite years of educational efforts, convincing people to take common sense steps to prevent auto theft remains a perplexing problem.

“If you’re leaving your car unlocked with your keys in the car, that’s just incredibly irresponsible,” Hampden Township Police Chief Steven Junkin said.

‘Persistent problem’

Vehicle thefts have plagued Cumberland County in recent weeks.

On Aug. 18, there were three cars stolen and “more than a dozen” entered in Hampden Township. Junkin said Tuesday that police are still actively investigating the cases but have not yet made an arrest.

A vehicle was stolen in Wormleysburg the same night, and another vehicle was stolen and several others entered in Lemoyne the following day.

Junkin said these sorts of incidents are not unprecedented.

“It’s uncommon for us, but when we do see it, we see it in clusters,” he said.

There were 55 attempted or successful vehicle thefts in Cumberland County in 2018, leading to about $871,000 in stolen property, according to the Uniform Crime Reporting System. That’s a drop in the bucket of 13,000 vehicles stolen statewide last year, according to the Pennsylvania Auto Theft Prevention Authority.

Many of these cases — including all of the Hampden Township thefts — have one thing in common: the doors were unlocked. All three cars that were stolen had keys left in the car.

That isn’t unusual. Almost half of all car thefts involve vehicles with the keys left in the car, according to Steven Wheeler, executive director of the Auto Theft Prevention Authority.

Worse still, “puffers” — vehicles left running and unlocked without the owner present — remain a “persistent problem,” according to a report from the ATPA.

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Old habits

The reason why people continue to leave their vehicles primed for theft may not be that complicated. For many people, it’s simply a habit not to lock their vehicles, Wheeler said.

“It is hard to change habits, especially some that are so ingrained,” agreed Marie Helweg-Larsen, a professor of psychology at Dickinson College whose research focuses on “why smart people do dumb things.”

Some people may also maintain their old habits because they want to live in a world where they can leave the keys in the car safely, according to Helweg-Larsen.

“(They may think), ‘I learned to do it that way long ago and I will not change just because some punks are stealing cars,’” she wrote in an email.

Optimistic bias — the belief that this won’t happen to me — and a lack of knowledge about the frequency of thefts and the effectiveness of locking vehicles are also likely factors, she said.

Someone looking to effectively form a new habit of taking their keys with them should designate a specific place where they leave their keys every day and not deviate from that, she recommended.

Gateway to crime

Some of the consequences of becoming a victim of car theft are obvious.

“You can’t go to work, you can’t take your kids to soccer practice,” Wheeler said. “Immediately, your life has changed in the short-term.”

Thieves might also find identifying information in the vehicle that allows them to access your credit card or bank account.

Less selfishly, though, there are other crime victims to consider. Cars are often stolen for use in other crimes – so the car you left unlocked could help someone rob a bank, abduct a child or engage in human trafficking, Wheeler said.

Insurance companies will likely pay the cost of a stolen car if you have comprehensive coverage, but that also means higher insurance rates for everyone, he said.

He recommends parking your car in a place that is visible to passing traffic, which can make a thief less likely to choose your vehicle. He also recommends not leaving anything valuable in your car.

Ultimately, though, Wheeler believes preventing auto thefts often requires following just one, very easy bit of advice.

“It doesn’t take any expense, it doesn’t take any sophisticated technology, it doesn’t take any mechanical advice,” he said. “All you have to do is lock your car and take your keys.”

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Daniel Walmer covers public safety for The Sentinel. You can reach him by email at dwalmer@cumberlink.com or by phone at 717-218-0021.