REDDING, Calif. -- A parked car with keys in the ignition looks enticing, but the bait is meant to make thieves think twice about grabbing a stolen ride.
The California Highway Patrol's bait-car program leaves unlocked cars, sometimes with engines running or keys inside, anywhere they might be stolen, said Steve Rauch, public information officer for the CHP's northern division.
When a thief drives off in a bait car, CHP officers are alerted and a GPS device on it directs officers to the car's moving location. When the vehicle is safely away from a crowded place, officers simply disable the engine remotely and move in, Rauch said.
It can be pretty funny to watch car thieves switch from confident to confused, he said.
"A lot of times, they can't figure out what's going on. They'll try to turn the car over a few times, and by the time the car rolls to the curb, that's when we pull up," he said.
The bait-car program, in place since 2003, seems to be helping prevent thefts while avoiding dangerous car chases. Shasta County vehicle owners suffered 469 auto thefts in 2007, down 35 percent from the prior year's 722, CHP Sgt. Bill East said.
Recording devices in and outside bait cars provide evidence to prosecute the thieves, as do fingerprints and officers who arrive to make arrests, Rauch said.
The CHP uses a few dozen bait cars, pickups and other vehicles throughout California, and often has a few in the north state area. Officers rotate them so thieves don't catch on, Rauch said.
"It keeps them guessing," he said. "We don't really want to set any patterns that these folks see as detectable."
At first, the CHP kept the program "hush-hush," Rauch said. But over time, that philosophy has changed. If criminals know they might be caught, they're less likely to tamper with any car, "bait" or not.
"The more that people have to start thinking about, 'Is this one of those setups?' then it's doing its job," he said.
Meanwhile, he encourages drivers to keep their cars safer by locking them, not leaving them running or leaving keys, pricey sunglasses, wallets, purses or other valuables visible. Hiding a spare key in a car is a bad idea, too, he said. Thieves know just where to look.
"People break into cars looking for purses, find the keys and end up taking off with the whole car," Rauch said.
Reporter Kimberly Ross can be reached at 225-8339 or at email@example.com.