The thieves strike mostly in the predawn hours, silently slipping into cars on residential streets in towns throughout Essex County.
They’re searching for keys, but they’ll take whatever they find, loose change, glasses, electronics, and even owner’s manuals.
It’s not really a matter of make or model. But the cars do share something in common:
Nearly all are left unlocked. Sometimes they are left unlocked with the keys inside.
"This apparently is the new crime of opportunity," said Lt. Peter Eakley, the public information officer for Millburn Police Department, who has repeatedly asked residents to help thwart burglars by keeping their doors locked and free of valuables.
Investigators have been tracking the rising trend, which has spared few communities.
It’s been an especially bad year. In a one-month period alone, Livingston Police reported 23 vehicle break-ins (from Aug. 15-Sept. 15).
Stolen cars have seen a huge spike: The number in Livingston – 23 from January through this week – is more than the past three years combined, said Detective Sgt. Anthony Dippold.
The brazen bandits are hitting neighboring towns as well. In Millburn since January there have been 165 break-ins and 23 car thefts. Montclair has been hit with 108 break-ins and 76 car thefts.
"Without a doubt this is an increase, and we are working on a regional basis to combat this situation," Eakley said.
With the number of car break-ins rising steadily, the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office is keeping track of the numbers. For the past month, the office has logged in 141 vehicle burglaries in 15 towns in West Essex (Aug. 15-Sept. 15), but is not actively involved in the investigations, said spokeswoman Katherine Carter.
Local police departments are grappling with ways to stop the crimes and, at the same time, educate residents on ways to protect themselves.
For example, earlier this year, Belleville created a task force specifically to deal with car break-ins and took prints at the scene, something that is not always done because of the expense.
In Montclair, where stolen cars have climbed 228 percent this year over last, Deputy Chief Todd Conforti said, "We would ask that residents assist in preventing these types of crimes by regularly locking their doors and windows to their vehicles and to quickly report any suspicious activities that they observe."
Police suspect several groups are operating in the towns. They look for unlocked cars and ransack glove compartments, mostly taking money, sunglasses, and portable GPS units.
They’ll take the car if you let them. Valet keys and electronic key fobs left in the car offer an easy get-away.
While this piece of advice should be a no-brainer, up to a quarter of vehicle thefts are from unlocked cars, according to law enforcement agencies. Simply locking the doors will deter those looking for an easy target. Electronic key fobs are also blamed, as newer models with start buttons can be activated even if the key fob in a home is placed close enough to the vehicle.
“It’s all about key maintenance, key control,” Dippold said, “knowing where your keys are at all times.”
Police offer the following tips:
— Always try to park in a well-lit, heavily traveled area, as close to your destination as possible.
— When you park, always roll the windows up tight, lock all doors, and take the keys with you.
— Never leave your car with the motor running.
— Never hide spare keys in your car.
— If you have a garage, lock both your car and the garage.
— Install and activate anti-theft devices.
— If you see someone tampering with your car, call the police and inform the call taker that you are reporting a motor vehicle theft “in progress”.
Shelley Emling and Paul Milo contributed reporting.