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Luxury car thieves are making a killing on the streets. In many cases, you’re helping them.

Sun Sentinel logoSun Sentinel 3/20/2021 Andrew Boryga, South Florida Sun Sentinel
a sign on the side of a road: Signs posted by the Fort Lauderdale Police Department which warn motorists about car thieves, are seen on Bayview Dr., Thursday, March 17, 2012, in Fort Lauderdale. © Joe Cavaretta / South Florida Sun Sentinel/South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS Signs posted by the Fort Lauderdale Police Department which warn motorists about car thieves, are seen on Bayview Dr., Thursday, March 17, 2012, in Fort Lauderdale.

They creep into upscale South Florida neighborhoods on the hunt for Range Rovers, Lamborghinis, and Ferraris. They look for the telltale sign of an unlocked car: unfolded side view mirrors.

On a good day — more often than you’d think — they find the car’s key fob inside. And with a simple push of a button, the luxurious car is gone.

The scenario has repeated itself over and over recently, as organized crews known as “car hoppers” show up in upscale neighborhoods in unassuming Toyotas and Hyundais, cruising up and down streets looking for cars to hit, according to South Florida police agencies.

Stephen Cosentino is one of many car owners who have fallen prey to them.

In January, his $700,000 white Ferrari was swiped from right under his nose. It was around 7 p.m. on a Saturday, and Cosentino said he was in the backyard of his Coral Ridge home by the water. He thought his car was parked in the driveway, where he had left it. But his wife came around to tell him differently.

a sign on the side of a road: Signs posted by the Fort Lauderdale Police Department warn motorists about car thieves, are seen on Bayview Drive on Thursday, March 17, 2021, in Fort Lauderdale. © Joe Cavaretta / South Florida Sun Sentinel/South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS Signs posted by the Fort Lauderdale Police Department warn motorists about car thieves, are seen on Bayview Drive on Thursday, March 17, 2021, in Fort Lauderdale.

“What do you mean, what do you mean?” he recalled himself saying.

Video surveillance from his home showed a man hopping out of a sedan that pulled up alongside Cosentino’s home, jumping into the Ferrari and backing it out of the driveway within seconds. Like many others, Cosentino had left the car’s key fob inside the center console.

“It’s a bad habit,” he said, then stopping to correct himself. “It was a bad habit.”

The oversight — and the rising thefts — might be a byproduct of automotive convenience. Key fobs were designed to make it simple to turn cars on with a button and without a key. But many drivers set fobs down inside the car and then forget them, making the job of a thief extremely simple.

Broward sheriff’s Detective Michael Merrill, part of a squad that specializes in these thefts, says suspects find their marks by looking closely at a car’s sideview mirrors. In most high-end cars, the mirrors automatically tuck in once the car is locked. Untucked mirrors often means unlocked doors and a quick score on the black market.

a car parked in a parking lot: Stephen Cosentino's $700,000 Ferrari is one of many high-end cars that have been stolen in recent months by organized crews of thieves in South Florida. Often, the suspects easily make away with the cars because residents, like Cosentino, leave their key fobs in the car. © Stephen Cosentino / Courtesy/South Florida Sun Sentinel/TNS Stephen Cosentino's $700,000 Ferrari is one of many high-end cars that have been stolen in recent months by organized crews of thieves in South Florida. Often, the suspects easily make away with the cars because residents, like Cosentino, leave their key fobs in the car.

Organized crews of thieves who once focused on cumbersome home burglaries have turned their eyes to the easier, more lucrative prize. Once stolen, the cars can fetch upwards of $30,000 on the street, according to police.

Open communities where thieves can drive up and down streets tend to get hit harder, Merrill said, but gated communities are lucrative, too, because many residents are lulled into thinking they’re safe. “They have a little bit of a false sense of security,” Merrill said during a podcast with Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony last month.

Cosentino became one of the lucky ones to get his car back. Police used the Ferrari’s GPS tracking system to locate it within hours and arrest a 15-year-old suspect with ties to a known street crew and a long rap sheet boosting cars just like Cosentino’s, according to an arrest report.

But a few days after Cosentino’s Ferrari was retrieved in January, his wife’s $150,000 Mercedes G-wagon was snatched from the very same driveway.

Like her husband, Cosentino’s wife made the mistake of leaving the key fob inside the car while running into the home for a quick errand — something she generally doesn’t do. “This was an unusual, odd thing,” he said.

Thankfully, Cosentino had installed an extra GPS tracker in the Mercedes, after the incident with his own Ferrari. Although thieves were able to disable one tracker in the car, the second one led police to a home in Opa-locka, where the car had been parked.

“Thank God,” Cosentino said, “because we wouldn’t have gotten that car back without those two tracking systems.”

Most car owners aren’t so lucky.

In December, a candy red Range Rover was stolen from the driveway of a Bay Colony home by the water, according to a Fort Lauderdale police report. The key fob had been resting in the center console.

Video surveillance from the home showed that around 5 p.m. on a Monday, a Nissan Maxima with tinted windows reversed onto the driveway. A man jumped out and took off with the car within seconds. The car hasn’t turned up since, a police spokeswoman said.

In April 2020, officers in Broward and Palm Beach pooled resources to catch a crew that had driven from Lauderhill into upscale neighborhoods in Lantana, Wellington and Lake Worth. The three-man crew broke into several cars and stole valuable, including a Louis Vuitton purse, but did not make away with any cars, according to a Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office report.

A sheriff’s aviation unit tracked their progress from the sky, which eventually tipped police off to a safe location to arrest them.

The Fort Lauderdale Police Department, the Hollywood Police Department and the Boca Raton Police Department all reported increases in car thefts from 2019 to 2020. Around the country, the National Insurance Crime Bureau reports that car thefts from 2019 to 2020 jumped more than 9%.

The agencies don’t keep specific statistics related to luxury vehicles, but the Fort Lauderdale Police Department’s street crimes division said they arrested 10 people in February from three different crews involved in tri-county theft rings.

The Broward Sheriff’s Office also announced that thefts were up in 2020 and said they made 176 arrests related to organized crews. Police helped find 69 cars worth a combined total of over $4 million, the agency said.

To remind residents not to leave fobs behind, police agencies have released videos, canvassed neighborhoods with signs and held news conferences in an effort to communicate the message. But the fobs continue to be left behind, more often than not, unintentionally.

Victims like Cosentino say prosecutors need to get tough on car thieves.

“There’s no reason for them not to steal the car,” he said. “They don’t really need to do much, just go steal the car and hope for the best.”

Since his two cars have been stolen, Cosentino has made some changes. He’s stopped parking his cars in his driveway and instead keeps them in his garage. He’s purchased more guns. He’s also in the process of installing a fence around his home.

“And obviously,” he said, “I would never leave the key [fob] in the car anymore.”

Andrew Boryga, aboryga@sunsentinel.com, 954-356-4533 or Twitter: @borywrites

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