Forget the gas station – with GPS (global positioning system) navigation systems becoming as popular and common as they are (many car manufacturers and cell phone services offer GPS navigation systems today) many commuters are opting for the transportable electronic device rather than the traditional “ask the gas attendant” method.
For a price of $120 to $450, the device assures that every traveler gets to their destination effortlessly, yet it also draws the interest of thieves as they can be sold on the black market for a lucrative amount.
That was allegedly the case at On the Ave clothing store on Summit Avenue in Union City, along with its Bayonne location, which after being notified of selling stolen items such as GPS systems, became targets of Jersey City’s Special Investigations Unit.
Officers from the Feb. 15 bust recovered seven GPS units bagged under a counter at the Union City store that still had their mounts and power wires attached. The bust was a joint effort with Union City police.
Officers were able to return the GPS systems to their rightful owners by clicking “home” on the addresses stored in the devices, many of which revealed victims from as far as Lodi, Maplewood, Hasbrouck Heights, and Jersey City.
Because the store owners were allegedly fencing and receiving stolen property, they were charged with possession of stolen property and pirating, according to Union City’s Police Chief Charles Everett.
According to Sgt. Wally Wolfe with the Jersey City Police Special Investigations Unit, the GPS units were being sold for as little as $40 to $50 on the black market.
The month-long investigation in January came about when uniformed officers in the JCPD’s north district were told that burglars from the Jersey City Heights area were bringing stolen items to the Union City and Bayonne stores.
Fight fire with fire
The surging popularity and affordability of GPS systems are slowly increasing, as are thefts. In Union City alone, the number of GPS system thefts more than tripled from three GPS thefts in October 2007 to 10 in the month of January alone. To date, February has seen nine GPS thefts in the city alone.
In late January, North Bergen police arrested four teenagers who were allegedly involved with as many as 200 car break-ins targeting these GPS systems.
In West New York, the number of thefts was much higher.
During October of last year, there were only three thefts, but the number jumped to 10 in December and 20 in January – something West New York’s Police Director Oscar Fernandez attributes to the holiday season.
“[GPS systems] became more popular this year because it became a hot Christmas item causing the spike in December,” said Fernandez.
“Surprisingly enough, a lot of people are leaving their vehicles open and [thieves] get in the car and they check for goods,” said Fernandez.
“If the door’s closed, they’ll smash the window,” said Fernandez.
Although towns like West New York, Union City, and Jersey City rely on uniformed and plain-clothed patrol officers to deter thieves, a bigger problem arises when thefts become random and opportunistic.
“If I had a target area [to monitor], it’d be easier to fix the problem,” said Fernandez.
However, Chief Everett of Union City has noticed areas of concern throughout the city.
“Parking lots are more vulnerable and somewhere thieves might target,” said Chief Everett.
“We’re not experiencing an overwhelming amount of these thefts but it’s a troubling amount,” said Everett, adding, “We do have patrolmen in [parking] lots, Bergenline and Summit avenues, and have officers assigned to UEZ zones.”
Chief Everett also noted that in Union City, residents have received flyers about how they can protect themselves. The department is also working with Hudson County officials to call on “more manpower and patrol in the areas of need.”
Said Everett, “We’re looking to get city resources to close these businesses [that support fencing].”
In order to address the issue in West New York, the department has and will set up sting operations. With three underway since the summer, the bust usually involves setting up easily accessible cars with a GPS unit in clear view as a trap for thieves.
“When you see a spike like 20 [GPS robberies], we have to set up a [sting],” said Fernandez.
To date, the department has cited over 18 arrests as a result of their operations.
Fernandez warned, “Next time a thief grabs a GPS, it may be one of ours.”
How to protect your GPS from theft
According to Wolfe, GPS owners can protect their property by removing the GPS system and its mount and storing it somewhere safe. For further protection, people are encouraged to take it with them when they leave the car.
Another measure that Wolfe suggests is wiping the suction cup marks off the windshield – a telltale sign that a GPS system, if not some other valuable device, is being stored in the car. An alternative to mounting the unit via suction cup is for commuters to place a friction mount on the dash – usually a small rubber mat that prevents items from scattering throughout the car – to mount their GPS system.
Nicolas Millan can be reached at NMillan@hudsonreporter.com.