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Confessions of a Car Thief

(updated April 30th, 2009)


You lock your car and activate the alarm system, but can that keep out the thieves who steal roughly 1 million vehicles in the U.S. each year?

Absolutely not.

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That's what former car thief Gary Sousa (not his real name) told us in this story about his life of crime. We found Gary through a friend who works in a municipal drug court, where car thieves sometimes end up. In this four-part article, Gary shares all his secrets, including how he began stealing cars before he reached legal driving age, which types of cars are the easiest marks and the techniques he used to steal them.

You'll be amazed how easy it is to steal cars, especially when their owners are a little careless. At the end of this series, we'll show you how best to protect your car from folks like him.

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Part 1

Learning the Ropes

I was stealing two cars every day, and that would put about $800 in my pocket. I went from staying in abandoned houses to being able to rent motel rooms for a week at a time, with just an hour's work.

My brother was a dope dealer and my dad was on drugs, so by the time I was 15 I did a lot of methamphetamine. It got so bad that I was living on the streets, in motel rooms and abandoned houses. I felt like, "Only the strong survive" and I did whatever it took to get money. I started hanging out with a couple guys from Las Flores, a gang in El Monte who stole cars. Car thieves like to talk about their business; they think it's cool, so most new thieves get their knowledge and tools from other criminals.

Every night we would go out and look for people slippin' — you know, leaving stuff outside where we could take it. Things like lawn mowers or whatever we could steal to make money. These guys taught me to look around for cars parked outside around 4:30 or 5 in the morning. See, people have a habit of going outside and starting their car to warm it up. Then they leave their keys in the ignition, go back in and get their coffee or books or whatever. If you see a car idling like that, it only takes a quick second to steal.

You can easily grab new cars that way, but often you can't really make any money on a new car, because the parts are all stock and stamped with serial numbers. But there are ways around that, too. A lot of gangs take the stolen cars to a crooked used car dealership. That dealership will file off the serial numbers, stamp their own numbers on it, then sell and register the car. Presto.

To make real money, you want something that's been all tricked out. You can just take it apart yourself and make money selling the parts on the streets. I stole cars with rims, stereo systems and body kits. Sometimes I got lucky and found drugs, guns, jewelry, cell phones or money in them. I didn't want to sell the parts myself most times, so I'd drive the car to a chop shop in Los Angeles.

I was stealing two cars every day, and that would put about $800 in my pocket. I went from staying in abandoned houses to being able to rent motel rooms for a week at a time, with just an hour's work. I'd get a room and food; then I'd go buy alcohol and party. I thought I was going to be a millionaire from selling drugs and stealing cars. When I was drugged out, I even used to break into a police station and steal stuff, 'cause I just didn't care!

I've even stolen cars from dealerships. If you take a walk through a dealership — one where the lot's located off the street — you'll find cars with keys in the ignition or on the floor. You just break the window and take off. The only thing you're chancing is that a cop could pass by when you're pulling out of the driveway.

Another place with easy pickings is an auto parts store or mechanic's shop — anywhere you drop off your car to have it fixed. If they don't have enough room in their garage, they'll leave your car in the parking lot with the keys in the ignition. They can see it from the shop, sure, but who's to stop me when I get in the car and lock the doors behind me? Gas stations are good places, too. Hang around at a gas station and you're bound to see someone jump out of their car, leave the key in the ignition, and run into the cashier or the mini mart.

The time of day didn't matter either; it just called for a different approach. If it was broad daylight, I went for auto parts stores or gas stations. I would also go for a car parked in a carport or an underground garage — somewhere I could hide in the dark. If a car was in a lighted area, I wouldn't go for it. I also wouldn't go for any car with an alarm. I could have, but personally I went for whatever was easiest.

Before I approached a car, I would hang around and watch the area. If I saw big vans driving by, I wouldn't go for the car. It could mean someone in the van was watching you, maybe a cop. I've had big white vans roll up on me and bust me with drugs. So I was really cautious about those. I also learned to avoid police "bait cars;" cops leave 'em unlocked to attract car thieves.