By BRIAN HAWKINS
A continued rash of vehicular and residential burglaries across Starkville — particularly in areas heavily populated by Mississippi State students — has Police Department officials intensifying efforts to encourage the public to take steps to protect themselves against these crimes.
Taking a cue from a similar effort in Columbus, SPD patrol Sgt. Landon Stamps and Officer Wesley Koehn last week conducted a survey in a heavily student populated area where they evaluated 100 parked vehicles for risk of being burglarized.
What Stamps and Koehn found proved rather revealing:
• More than 90 percent of the cars, pickups and SUVs examined had valuables — including wallets, purses, MP3 players, GPS units, laptop computers, cellular phones and golf clubs — left in plain view, making them an easy target for criminals.
• Nearly one-fourth of the vehicles were left unlocked.
• Multiple vehicles had keys left inside in plain view, some even in the ignition.
These findings leave an open invitation for burglars to commit crimes, said SPD Detective Jimmie Thomas, one of several detectives investigating the recent burglaries, including seven that were reported this past Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.
“Most auto burglaries are crimes of opportunities and are not forced entry,” said Thomas on Friday.
“We are getting hit hard with burglaries.”
Residential burglaries have also been a problem.
SPD statistics show that between 40 and 50 percent of all felony crimes reported inside the city limits are either vehicular, residential or commercial burglaries.
Statistics from July 2010 through Friday of this past week show that officers have responded to 141 burglaries citywide, including 66 vehicular break-ins and 73 residential break-ins.
Many occur during holidays when MSU students are gone and during times of the year when there is a high volume of visitor traffic in town, such as for major MSU athletic events and local festivals.
Like the vehicular burglaries, residential break-ins — which usually involve a forced entry — are seeing the same types of items of being stolen, as well as some electronics items like flat-screen televisions and video game systems.
“Because of the large volume of cases, much of our resources are spent investigating burglaries,” said SPD Lt. Mark Ballard.
Smaller items like MP3 players, GPS units, cellular phones and laptops are frequently sold on the street or in local pawn shops, said Thomas.
But with many electronics items, there are numerous application programs that can be downloaded to the devices that can allow authorities to track them when they are stolen, said Thomas, who has been researching the issue. Some may be downloaded for free, while others involve a small annual service charge, he said.
One such application — Gadget Tracker — is available for a variety of cellular phone models, including the Apple iPhone, Blackberry and Android, as well as for Apple products such as the iPod and iPad, Thomas said.
The application, which can be activated by a text message, activates the GPS tracking system in the device and allows its owner to make it tamper-proof, preventing the one who stole it from turning the application off and allowing authorities to track its movement with GPS technology within a few meters of its actual location, Thomas said.
“These applications turn the predator into the prey,” Thomas said. “On laptop computers with a webcam, it can even activate the camera to take pictures of whoever is using the stolen computer.”
These applications can aid police in recovering stolen items, Thomas said.
“An FBI statistic shows that 10 percent of all laptops purchased this year will be stolen, and only 3 percent of those will be recovered. If more people had these applications on their computers or other devices, we’d recover more of them,” Thomas said.
Here are some tips for preventing vehicular break-ins:
• Always lock a vehicle when leaving it for any amount of time and make sure windows are rolled up completely and locked
• Park in well-lit areas will often deter potential criminals.
• Do not leave small electronics devices, wallets, purses or other easily taken items lying in plain view inside a vehicle. They should be removed from the vehicle or hidden from plain view.
Simple precautions against house and apartment break-ins can help residents protect themselves, police said, including:
• Leaving lights on both indoors and outdoors when not at home. Increased visibility around the home decreases the likelihood criminals will attempt to break in. Police detectives recommended that homeowners set many lights on timers to come on during the evening hours.
• Having neighbors they trust watch their homes and property while they are away. Neighbors will be more likely to spot something out of place or suspicious, detectives said.
• Making sure all doors are locked, particularly those with deadbolt locks. The same applies to windows.
• Keeping valuables out of the potential view of burglars from outdoors.
Police recommend that residents close curtains and blinds to keep valuables out of the direct view of criminals.
• Not hesitating to call police or other law enforcement agencies to report any unusual or suspicious activity around their homes or those of their neighbors.
Starkville residents and MSU students alike should keep a list of serial numbers of valuables such as electronics, appliances, jewelry, firearms and other valuables as a precaution in case a vehicular or residential break-in occurs.
Such a list should be stored in a safe place and can aid police in recovering items.