Enjoying a hike to Horsetooth Rock, a day at the park or a workout at your gym could mean your vehicle is an easy target for thieves this summer.
Thefts from vehicles parked at trailheads, parks, open spaces and even gyms are common year-round but spike in the summer months as more people head out to enjoy the outdoors, Fort Collins Police Cpl. Dustin Wier said. Vehicles left in those locations are easier targets because the property owners will be gone for a while, whether they’re on a hike, enjoying a playground or working out.
On a county level, that spike occurs from May through October, with thefts happening at a variety of locations throughout the county, communications supervisor for Larimer County Natural Resources Korrie Johnston said in an email.
“Don’t assume you’re immune,” Johnston said.
Johnston said she had her car broken into at a trailhead several years ago. After a short outing, she came back to find her car window had been broken, her purse that had been under her seat was gone and a charge had already been made on her credit card.
“I naively thought, ‘No one is looking at me or my car, it could never happen to me. I’m just going to be gone for a quick hour,’ ” Johnston said. “I have never parked in a trailhead the same way.”
In general, Wier said thefts from vehicles occur overnight and usually because cars are left unlocked, and most or all valuables in the vehicle are stolen. But vehicle break-ins at trailheads and parks are usually different. In those thefts, Wier said police typically see:
- The car’s windows are broken or locks are popped.
- Purses and wallets are stolen, or sometimes just credit cards and cash are taken out.
- Other valuables are left behind.
After taking the credit cards, suspects often go directly to stores like Target, Walmart and King Soopers to buy as much in gift cards as they are able to, Wier said. Because victims are out hiking or otherwise away from their cars, this can happen before a person even notices their cards have been stolen.
Thieves can use discreet tactics to delay being discovered, Wier said, like popping locks on car doors instead of smashing windows or only taking credit cards but leaving behind purses, wallets and other valuables.
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How police deter thieves (and the challenges they face)
Police try to be proactive in deterring these thefts, Wier said. Fort Collins Police Services tracks reported vehicle trespasses in these high-target areas and use that data to identify where they should add patrols. Police also conduct undercover surveillance and will place mounted game cameras or other live cameras in the parking areas to get video of suspects and license plate numbers, Wier said.
Officers also go to stores where stolen credit cards are often used and educate employees on what to look for and how to report suspicious activity to police, Wier said.
Johnston said the natural resources department has considered placing cameras at day use areas and trailheads, but it would be expensive to do this at the dozens of locations across the county. There are cameras at high-use areas — Horsetooth Reservoir South Bay, Devil’s Backbone, Carter Lake marina and Horsetooth Mountain — but they are used to inform visitors about parking availability, not for surveillance.
Even with tactics like surveillance and education, Wier said it’s often difficult for police arrest the perpetrators of these thefts.
“Often we see that a lot people committing these crimes at trails, parks and open spaces, they’re not local to Fort Collins and they’re often part of larger networks who are organized and travel across the country,” Wier said.
Wier said these organized groups target communities near interstates, drive into cities to commit these thefts and move on to another city, often before police are called. They usually work in groups, with someone acting as the lookout while others sit in cars parked in the lots, waiting for someone to start their hike. They are typically in rental cars with stolen license plates, making the vehicles difficult to track, Wier said.
Police resources for investigating these thefts are limited because the crime — first-degree criminal trespassing — was recently reclassified from a felony to a misdemeanor, Wier said, and police tend to focus their resources on investigating felonies.
Knowing that these groups often target multiple cities and counties, Wier said the best way to identify these thieves is to work with law enforcement in other jurisdictions to share evidence and information. Wier said that strategy has helped Fort Collins police arrest suspects tied to similar cases in other jurisdictions and connect suspects arrested for similar crimes outside of Fort Collins to unsolved thefts here.
Tips to prevent your car from being broken into at a trailhead or park
- Lock your doors.
- Keep valuables out of your vehicle completely, or at least out of sight (like in your trunk or glove compartment).
- Take your wallet or cards with you when you leave your vehicle.
- Be aware of your surroundings and look out for suspicious activity.
- Call 911 if you see a theft in progress or the Fort Collins police nonemergency number, 970-419-3273, if you see something suspicious or need to report a theft that has occurred.
Sady Swanson covers public safety, criminal justice, Larimer County government and more throughout Northern Colorado. You can send your story ideas to her at email@example.com or on Twitter at @sadyswan. Support her work and that of other Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.