ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KNWA/KFTA) — Cold weather months can lead to crimes of opportunity in driveways and parking lots, because thieves often look for the smoke coming from the exhaust of unattended vehicles that owners are warming up.

Recent data shows automobile thefts have increased significantly since the start of the pandemic according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB).

But on cold days, some drivers start their vehicles and then go back inside for a few minutes to allow the engine and heater to warm up.

Many aren’t aware it takes thieves only a few seconds to jump in the vehicle and take off. AAA says drivers should never leave their vehicle unattended with the keys inside while running errands or even at home.

“Thieves are opportunists and know that on a cold day, some people will leave their vehicle unattended while it warms up,” said AAA Spokesperson, Nick Chabarria.

Therefore, AAA wants to remind drivers there are steps they can take to protect their property and recommends the following tips to avoid becoming an auto theft victim:

  • Never leave a car unlocked and running to warm it up or while stopping for a quick cup of coffee. It only takes a moment for the opportunistic thief to jump inside and drive off.
  • Start the engine and allow it to idle only for the time it takes you to fasten your seat belt. This ensures that lubricating oil gets to all of the engine’s vital parts. Driving the car normally and avoiding hard acceleration brings the engine to a warmer temperature faster, and also reduces wear and exhaust emissions.
  • Use anti-theft or automatic tracking devices. If your vehicle wasn’t equipped with an alarm or hidden tracking device when purchased, have one installed.
  • Never leave your keys in your vehicle, even at a gas station or at home.
  • Never hide a spare ignition key in your vehicle, including under floor mats, sun visor, etc.
  • Whenever possible, park your vehicle in a secure garage or a well-lit area at night.
  • Have windows VIN etched. Car window VIN etchings are small, but visible enough to deter thieves, according to law enforcement officials. Since car thieves frequently steal vehicles to sell off the automobile’s parts, a window that is VIN etched makes less profitable for thieves and helps law enforcement recover stolen vehicles.

“Automobile thefts increase during colder months in part due to ‘warm-up thefts’, a crime that is easily prevented as most modern vehicles no longer require a long idling period to warm the engine,” said Chabarria.