Advice from a former car thief. Common sense is the better part of security

``The car-theft problem has gotten completely out of hand,'' declares Don Bledsoe, a reformed car thief who is now a car repossessor. ``If we could get motorists to be more conscious of something that they pay a lot of money for, then that alone would cut down a good degree of auto theft.'' Car theft is indeed big business. A Justice Department study says it swelled from a $140 million crime in 1970 to at least $5.1 billion today. Furthermore, the chances of recovering a stolen vehicle today are no more than 55 percent, compared with 84 percent in 1975.

Mr. Bledsoe, who spent 32 years behind bars in a half dozen states, is now on the side of the motorist. The ex-thief readily speaks to youth groups, law-enforcement officers, or anyone else who'll listen, thumping his cause to make people more aware of their cars.

To many people, he says, a car is just a means of transportation. They'll park it anywhere (a dimly lighted street?) and even help a potential thief by leaving the key in plain sight or in the ignition slot itself. To decrease the chances of having your car stolen, Bledsoe suggests:

Never park at the curb in front of your house. It is far safer to park in the driveway.

If you must park at the curb, install a light on the front of the house which shines on the car. Thieves don't want to be exposed to light.

Take an inventory of your car. Find out what it has that people would want to steal. The T-top on a Nissan 300-ZX, for example, costs $1,700 to replace. Be careful where you take the T-top off. An expensive stereo is another high priority.

If you are away from home, don't park your car far from your destination. Keep it as close to where you're going as you can, or to where there are many people around.

Do not let a valet service park your car unless it puts it in a secure parking lot. Also, many times the service will put the key on the left front wheel in plain view of a car thief. Remember, there are many professional car thieves that park cars or have friends who park cars.

If your car is equipped with an alarm system, treat it as you would treat a safe-deposit box. Don't give the key or code to just anyone.

If thieves can get to the power source of a car, they can dismantle any alarm system. It's a good practice to have a backup power source or two separate alarms.

People who steal valuables from a car are not necessarily professional thieves. They may do $2,000 worth of damage just to get a $200 item. Alarm decals on your car work only with an amateur or semiprofessional. For the most part, decals do not deter criminals.

``Realistically, there is not much you can do if a professional car thief wants to steal your car,'' Bledsoe contends. ``However, half of all cars are stolen by amateurs, and a good alarm system will keep the amateur or vandal away.''

The straight-talking Bledsoe, an expert in his former trade, now owns a car repossessing and security-consulting business on the West Coast, acquired through the kindness and trust of a law officer in California where he did a lot of his ``time.''

``Locks were only designed to intimidate people, not for security,'' says Bledsoe. To protect their car, he concludes, motorists have to take some of the responsibility as well.

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