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Car Break-Ins: The Tips That Could Help Keep Your Vehicle Safe

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A car is parked next to a large park with a view of the San Francisco skyline. The rear window on the left side of the car has been shattered.
A car with a broken window at San Francisco's Alamo Square on June 16, 2023. According to law enforcement, sightseeing areas like Alamo Square, along with Lombard Street and Fisherman's Wharf, see a lot of car break-ins — informally known by many residents as 'bipping.' (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

It’s the fear that looms large over every person who drives a vehicle in the San Francisco Bay Area. You leave your car — perhaps only for a few minutes — and return to a smashed window and your important belongings gone.

Auto break-ins, unofficially referred to as “getting bipped” by many in the Bay Area, are frustratingly common in the region — so common that KQED has already published a step-by-step guide to what to do if your car is broken into.

And now, in the second of our two-part series on coping with car break-ins, we’re looking at possible strategies for reducing your chances of getting bipped in the Bay Area. But let’s get one thing out of the way first. …

You can do everything ‘right’ and still get bipped

Unfortunately, a person can do everything they can to reduce their risk of a break-in, and still suffer one in the Bay Area.

The amount of “smash and grab” break-ins that happen all over the Bay Area — many times in very busy places in broad daylight — show that bipping doesn’t just happen in dark alleyways or to careless drivers. Nor do break-ins only happen to newer or expensive-looking cars.

Opportunistic thieves can still target people who purposefully park in well-lit, crowded areas and who strip their cars of anything that looks remotely valuable in an attempt to foil a break-in. And break-ins happen to people who’ve lived in the Bay Area all their lives as well as first-time tourists. Sometimes, all your effort just doesn’t pay off — and it’s not your fault.

“It’s not ‘if’, it’s ‘when’ you’ll get your car broken into if you live in the Bay Area,” said Ladan Sobhani, co-owner of Berkeley repair shop Auto Glass Express. Sobhani spoke to KQED to share advice on how to prevent getting bipped and she has also written a list of tips to reduce your risks of a break-in.

Sobhani estimates that “somewhere between 50% to 25%” of the work her shop does is related to auto break-ins. “As a South Berkeley resident who has experienced her share of break-ins,” she writes in her list of tips, “I know that no matter how careful you are you can still be a victim of car vandalism.”

But that doesn’t mean you can’t still try. And we hope the following tips might help you even lower your risks.

Be on guard in the areas — and tourist hotspots — most at risk for break-ins

Some cities and neighborhoods see more auto break-ins than others — and San Francisco has become particularly notorious among tourists and residents alike.

The San Francisco Standard reported that from July 2022 to July 2023, there were 2,432 thefts from vehicles in the city’s North Beach neighborhood alone — a 51% rise from the same 2018–2019 time period. The city’s Japantown neighborhood registered the second-highest number of break-ins, followed by the Presidio. You can also check out the San Francisco Chronicle’s SF Car Break-In Tracker tool, which shows the number of bips in any given neighborhood with data going as far back as 2018.

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Be especially wary around SFO or OAK airports — or on the way

Car thieves are especially vigilant around airports, says Sobhani, because they know that cars stopping in this vicinity may contain luggage headed to or from a flight.

So if you’re catching a flight, she urges you to be particularly careful stopping off and leaving your car at coffee shops or fast food restaurants closest to the airport. “People get broken into there multiple times a day,” said Sobhani. Back in March, NBC Bay Area reported the story of a couple who suffered two break-ins on the same day, in the same parking lot of an In-N-Out near Oakland International Airport.

Even if you’re not close to the airport, but you’re on the way there, stay vigilant in tourist areas and local beauty spots where you or your visitors might be stopping off on the way to the airport. Marina Greenwood, a Marina resident of five years, told KQED that break-ins near the Palace of Fine Arts, where tourists often stop for one last picture before heading out of the city, were commonplace.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a tourist come to my house asking if we have video surveillance because all of their passports have been stolen, and they’re on their way to the airport,” said Greenwood.

The rear window of a car that is completely shattered.
Even if you just leave behind a bag in your car that is completely empty, that bag could still be a reason for a thief to break your windows. (ayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Never leave electronics in your car — even if you think they’re hidden

One strategy used by many Bay Area residents is hiding important electronics somewhere inside the car where they are out of sight — but leaving anything in your car unattended still runs the risk of being stolen.

Both journalists and industry experts point out that thieves targeting cars now have access to technology that can detect Bluetooth devices in your car, even if they’re hidden way out of sight.

In 2019, WIRED magazine looked into this phenomenon and talked to security firm founder Jake Williams, who said some devices emit a Bluetooth signal even when in sleep mode.

“A lot of that has to do with power savings; it depends on what sleep mode different laptops go into when the lid is closed,” Williams told WIRED. “But I have little doubt that some thieves are using Bluetooth scanners to target devices. It’s trivial to use one, so it’s not like technical knowledge is a limiting factor.”

However, car security researcher Tim Strazzere also told WIRED that he’s more likely to attribute such electronic thefts to a thief’s eyesight rather than their technology. “If I’m sitting in a parking lot and going to break into a car,” said Strazzere, “and I see someone get out of their car and put something in their trunk, then walk away, would I bother checking my iPhone to see if a Bluetooth beacon is beaconing from that trunk?”

“No. I’m going to smash the window two seconds after they’re out of view, take the bag, walk away, and look at it when I’m out of sight again. Save the time, go fast, grab everything.”

Why run the risk and leave any electronics in your car at all?

Pay attention to what you leave in view — and don’t

So you’ve taken out all your expensive electronics from your car. Should that cover you?

Sadly not. Auto shop owner Sobhani says you shouldn’t assume that thieves will only be tempted by expensive-looking stuff. In her list of tips for reducing your risks of a break-in, Sobhani writes how “a bag with stinky gym clothes cost one customer the expensive back glass on her Prius,” and warns that a bag on display with nothing of value inside it is still a bag that a thief will deem worth breaking your window for.

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At a press conference held at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts — a particular hotspot for bipping — on Aug. 24, SFPD Chief Bill Scott also warned against leaving luggage in your car, “even for a minute.” Many visitors (and residents chaperoning visitors) will leave their car for a moment to snap a photo, “and they get back and they [were] 50 yards away, and their stuff is gone.”

“This is not about victim shaming at all,” he said, “this is about just being smart. … when there’s nothing there, it makes it harder for crooks to do what they do.”

Leaving aux cables and other jacks on display can also signal to thieves that an electronic device could be close by in the car, Sobhani warns — even if it isn’t.

If you have a hatchback or station wagon, Sobhani advises you to keep your cargo cover open (or you can remove the cover entirely), and the trunk visibly empty. That’s because “one of the most commonly broken windows” she sees in her industry is the small quarter glass on hatchbacks, which thieves will break to be able to pull down a car’s back seat and see what’s in the cargo area.

Assume you and your car are being watched

Often, people will “go out of their way” to lock a purse and a bag in their trunk before leaving their car, says Sobhani — not realizing that someone was watching them do just this.

“Even if you don’t see anyone around (the suspicious look behind you doesn’t help), you should assume that someone with nefarious intentions saw you stash that purse in the trunk,” writes Sobhani, who also mentions that she’s seen this happen to hikers visiting spots like the Berkeley Marina, Tilden Park and other East Bay Regional Parks.

And don’t assume that just because you’re leaving your car for just a minute or two that this isn’t enough time for a thief to strike, and make off with your stuff. It absolutely is.

Shattered glass from a car window covers a street sidewalk. There are two electric scooters parked nearby.
Broken car-window-glass pieces are seen by a curb at San Francisco’s Alamo Square on June 16, 2023. Experts also warn that some thieves keep track of what vehicle owners place in their trunk after they park. ‘You should assume that someone with nefarious intentions saw you stash that purse in the trunk,’ writes car-shop owner Ladan Sobhani. (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Don’t let any ‘anti-theft’ measures make your car itself more steal-able

Start asking around how folks in the Bay Area try to protect their own car from a robbery, and you might hear things like leaving your windows rolled down or car doors deliberately unlocked — in the hope that a thief might choose to rifle through an open car without breaking a window.

But Janet Ruiz, director of strategic communications at the Insurance Information Institute, warns that, leaving your car essentially open could also just increase the likelihood that your car might get outright stolen instead.

“You really want to protect your car from being stolen,” said Ruiz who also recommends installing a car alarm “and maybe even cameras outside your home that point to your car, as well as keeping your doors and windows locked.” If you have a garage, she says, you’re better off parking your car inside that space — or in a well-lit area in front of your home, if you don’t have a garage.

What is law enforcement doing to reduce car break-ins?

At an Aug. 24 press conference held at San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts, police Chief Bill Scott shared that his department plans to increase the number of police officers — both in uniform and plain clothes — across the city to deter break-ins and catch thieves in the act. Popular sightseeing spots like Alamo Square, Lombard Street and Fisherman’s Wharf will now have more of what he referred to as “tourism deployment” of on-duty officers.

What new strategies will SFPD employ to counter thieves? Scott made it clear that he wasn’t “going to go into a whole lot of details, because by design we want the people who are breaking into cars to be caught.”

But he did mention that the department will be using “bait cars” owned by SFPD that contain police property in order to catch burglars “Our best chance of making this problem get better is catching people, because these are very, very difficult crimes to solve,” said Scott.

Scott also encouraged residents who have been victims of a break-in to report what happened to the police. Doing so gives authorities “an idea of where to put our resources,” he said. “We can’t solve problems that we don’t know about.”

And despite the presence of police officers in the area, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that a tourist’s rental car was broken into just around the corner from where the SFPD conference was held — moments before officials were due to speak.

KQED’s Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman and Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez contributed (after the latter’s car got bipped — sorry Joe!) to this story.

Tell us: What else do you need information about?

At KQED News, we know that it can sometimes be hard to track down the answers to navigate life in the Bay Area in 2023. We’ve published clear, practical explainers and guides about COVID, how to cope with intense winter weather and how to exercise your right to protest safely.

So tell us: What do you need to know more about? Tell us, and you could see your question answered online or on social media. What you submit will make our reporting stronger, and help us decide what to cover here on our site, and on KQED Public Radio, too.

 

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