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Civics in thieves' sights

Little car is No. 1 target in Utah, state officials say

Deseret Morning News graphic

It's apparently one of the hottest cars to steal in Utah, particularly along Wasatch Front.

It's not a Porsche, a Ferrari or even a SUV. It's the Honda Civic.

Forty-five to 50 percent of the vehicles stolen in Salt Lake City are Civics, according to police detective Dwayne Baird. Investigators from the Utah Motor Vehicle Enforcement Division (MVED) said the parking structures at the Gateway Mall were hit hard recently with a rash of about 15 Honda Civics stolen.

West Valley City police report from Jan. 1 to June 30 there were 29 Honda Civics stolen in their city, making it the most popular car among thieves.

The reason for the car's popularity? Like a scene out of the movie "The Fast and Furious," authorities blame at least part of the thefts to illegal street racers.

In Salt Lake City's case, "Most all of (those stealing Civics) are the illegal street racers," Baird said.

Statistics from the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) show that in 2002, the most recent statistics available, the top three stolen cars nationwide were: 1) Toyota Camry, 2) Honda Accord, and 3) Honda Civic.

But in Utah in 2002, the top three stolen cars were: 1) Honda Civic, 2) Honda Accord and 3) Toyota Camry.

"These vehicles are most often taken for their parts, which are no longer manufactured and are too difficult or expensive to obtain," NICB President and CEO Robert M. Bryant said in a statement released on the group's Web site. "The individual car components are in high demand with 'tuners' or street racers."

The Honda Civics used by street racers are modified versions of the ones sold at car dealerships. Racers purchase a standard car and then upgrade it with many specialized parts.

An undercover investigator with MVED, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Deseret Morning News that those who steal Honda Civics and participated in street racing could be divided into two groups: those who want to win at all costs and steal simply to better their own vehicle and those trying to commit insurance fraud.

"One friend will take the other friend's car, strip it out and collect (insurance) on it," the agent said.

They attempt to get away with it by forging VIN numbers. MVED spokeswoman Jodi Monaco said one person may attempt to make multiple insurance claims for the same vehicle but with different VIN numbers.

"He's having it stolen or damaged to get parts for his car," she said.

Salt Lake City police recently joined forces with NICS to start a racer database, Monaco said. Part of the goal is to look for multiple insurance claims being made on a VIN number or by an individual.

NICS public affairs director Frank Scafidi said insurance fraud has been around since the day insurance was started. But crooks tend to upgrade their methods, and local police departments need to evolve right along with them.

Scafidi said the street-race phenomenon is growing nationally.

In addition to insurance fraud, the majority of those who steal Civics and have ties to street racing seem to be doing it simply for the parts, particularly high-performance engines, according to the undercover agent.

"They race them so hard they blow them," the agent said.

"The reason they're doing it, they go out race their cars (and) blow engines, crash fenders. Then they need to replace the parts so they steal another car for parts," Baird said. "Most parts on cars are not readily traceable."

What's unique about Honda Civic thefts is that aside from a few gang problems, investigators rarely find suspects participating in any additional crimes.

In other car theft cases investigated by MVED, additional crimes like forgery, identification fraud, guns or drugs will eventually show up. But that doesn't seem to be the case with the street racers stealing cars. They seem to limit their illegal activity to just car thefts, Monaco said. Because there are only a limited number of people locally who own cars with parts worth stealing, Monaco said the racers are "kind of cannibals on each other."

But Monaco cautioned her department didn't want to "hang the whole thing on racers."

Doug Binstock, general manager of Rocky Mountain Raceway, agreed that the street racing community, which mostly consists of young adults in their late teens to early 20s, are for the most part a good group.

"Overall, they're pretty good kids," he said. "It's unfair to label them as thieves."

The idea of racers targeting Honda Civics for parts is a bit farfetched, according to Binstock.

"The stuff they want isn't found on a street car," he said. "They want the performance items. They're going to have to buy those."

Binstock said the problem of illegal drag racing has gone significantly down since his track began offering midnight street races three years ago. It also reduced the associated gang problems, he said.

"It's given them an outlet. It's curbed a lot of crime," he said. Binstock said he sees all types of street racing cars at his track, including Honda Civics, but he doesn't see any more of one type of car over another. Furthermore, he claimed undercover police officers have been at the races in the past looking for stolen vehicles but have never found any. All drivers wanting to participate in the street racing at the raceway have to show proper identification, and all cars have to be licensed and inspected. Although the inspections are for safety, Binstock said it serves a second function of preventing people from bringing stolen cars to the races.

Thousands of young adults show up for the midnight drags during the summer, Binstock said, some to race and others just to watch. Some are chaperoned by their parents. Car owners can take steps to deter thieves from taking their vehicles. Baird said the three things crooks dislike are: light, noise and time.

If a car is parked in a well-lit area, or has an anti-theft device that would take too much time to dismantle or has a car alarm, thieves will generally move on to the next car, Baird said.