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A new spike in an old crime: Car thefts on the rise during COVID-19

There have been more motor vehicle thefts across the country since the pandemic started, but the problem is particularly bad in Rhode Island

A man walked to clean snow off a car along a row of homes in Central Falls, R.I.
A man walked to clean snow off a car along a row of homes in Central Falls, R.I.David Goldman/Associated Press

PROVIDENCE — Maybe you’re not going anywhere during the pandemic. But your car may be.

For the last several decades, the rate of car thefts had been stalling out, nationally and in Rhode Island, which was notorious in the 1970s as one of the hottest places for hot cars. Police cracked down on thieves, scrutinized sellers of precious metals at junkyards, and vehicle security systems improved.

Then came COVID-19 and, with it, a new spike in an old crime.

Motor vehicle thefts sped up last year across the country, including in Rhode Island, which saw an increase of between 5.2 percent and 10.4 percent in car thefts since 2019. (The Providence-Warwick area has a higher car theft rate than Boston, though lower than Springfield and New Haven.)


In the city of Providence, car thefts increased by 10.8 percent in 2020, and have already accelerated this year, with an increase of 86 percent compared with this time last March. Although the neighborhoods in the city’s North End saw the biggest increases in 2020, South Providence, Federal Hill and the West End, Olneyville, Hartford, and Silver Lake are also reporting higher-than-usual thefts this year.

Providence police Major David Lapatin, head of the investigative bureau, said he isn’t sure what’s driving the increase.

This is an opportunistic crime — see a car, take a car — and with more people staying home and leaving their vehicles idle, the opportunities arise. And people may not immediately realize their vehicles are missing, Lapatin said.

The thefts are at a 10-year high, up nearly 10 percent, in the country, and higher in some metropolitan areas, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, a nonprofit organization fighting insurance fraud and crime, which produces an annual “Hot Spots” report on vehicle theft.

Overall, the NICB found, the yearly increase was 9.2 percent, and each month from June through December showed double-digit gains.


NICB’s president and CEO Dave Glawe blamed conditions caused by the pandemic.

“We have a lot of disenfranchised youth that are unemployed, and outreach programs are shut down or limited due to COVID. There is frustration and anger in society. We also are seeing public safety resource limitations and withdrawal of proactive policing due to budget constraints,” Glawe said in a statement this week. “I’ve been studying this for almost 30 years; when you have a perfect storm like this, we see that manifest in crimes against automobiles.”

Amanda Milkovits can be reached at amanda.milkovits@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits.