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GPS Burglary

Claim:   Thieves use information gleaned from GPS devices stolen from cars parked at public events to locate homes to burgle.

PARTLY TRUE

Example:   [Collected via e-mail, December 2008]

A couple of weeks ago a friend told me that someone she knew had their car broken into while they were at a football match. Their car was parked on the green which was adjacent to the football stadium and specially allotted to football fans.

Things stolen from the car included a garage door remote control, some money and a GPS which had been prominently mounted on the dashboard.

When the victims got home, they found that their house had been ransacked and just about everything worth anything had been stolen.

The thieves had used the GPS to guide them to the house. They then used the garage remote control to open the garage door and gain entry to the house.

The thieves knew the owners were at the football game, they knew what time the game was scheduled to finish and so they knew how much time they had to clean up the house.

It would appear that they had brought a truck to empty the house of its contents.
 

Origins:   This account of a burglary facilitated by the victims' own technology (GPS and automatic garage door openers) began its online life in December 2008. It has come to be circulated as the first of two "their own technology turned against them" stories, the second being the 2006 tale about the cell phone lifted from a stolen purse used to trick a woman's husband into revealing Burglar the PIN to the couple's bank accounts.

Like the "text message used to trick the husband into giving out the PIN" story, nothing is provided in the GPS burglary account that would help determine the who, when and where of the break-in, details necessary to the process of tracking down the incident. Moreover, the story is provided as a "friend of a friend" (FOAF) tale: the unknown e-mail's writer wasn't the one who was burglarized, nor did the robbery purportedly happen to a friend of that person, but to an acquaintance of that friend. That's about as untraceable as it gets!

However, while the e-mailed account is untraceable, there have been thefts where a car's GPS led the way to the booty. In August 2007, the "sat nav" (GPS) stolen from a car parked at Alton Towers, a theme park in Great Britain, directed thieves to the vehicle owner's residence via its "home" key being used to divulge that location. Although the home wasn't broken into, the £20,000 Saab convertible that had been left parked in its driveway was made off with. The vehicle was later recovered.

In January 2009 keys taken from a valet parking station in Manhasset, New York, were used to steal a diner's 2008 Mercedes Benz, then additional keys left in that car plus that vehicle's GPS used to lead thieves to the victim's home, where they made off with a second vehicle left parked in the home's driveway, a 2003 Porsche.

It needs be noted that in both those incidents, keys to the second vehicles taken had been left in the first vehicles broken into, thus the car thieves knew the nature of the booty in store for them if they were able to coax the right information out of the acquired GPS.

In September 2009, Dwayne Wilkinson and Hugh Brown of White Plains, New York were arrested in connection with more than 300 burglaries. Investigators said the pair would break into a car, use a GPS device to locate the car owner's address and access the home with the help of a garage door opener.

Real incidents or not, the fear that robbers will use their victim's global positioning systems to gain their home addresses is likely exaggerated. Robbers typically favor low-tech
solutions over high-tech ones, and it's far simpler to rifle a car's glove compartment for bills or documents bearing the vehicle owner's information than it is to fiddle with (unfamiliar) electronic devices. Moreover, while only some cars have dash-mounted GPS units at this time, nearly all vehicles have at least one or two easily accessible items bearing the car owner's address.

Also, such a "This could happen to you!" warning rubs against the same rock that sinks other cautionary tales (such as a recent item about stolen handbags): the presumption that a particular house necessarily stands empty if one resident has been tricked into leaving it or is known to be elsewhere. A potential burglar breaking into randomly selected cars parked at the site of a football game would have no way of knowing that the vehicle owners' homes weren't occupied by various other family members or friends, or even an ill-tempered, sharp-toothed dog or three.

There have been instances, though, of crooks breaking into cars and harvesting automatic garage door openers which they subsequently used to gain easy access to victims' homes. News stories we've found about such robberies tend to indicate such devices are primarily used to open and raid garages rather than to gain entry to the houses themselves, but even so householders have had their children's bikes and Christmas presents stolen out of locked garages via this mode of entry.

There is one small nugget of truth in the "This could happen to you!" fable: The majority of burglars prefer to go about their business while the home they're breaking into is unoccupied. Some even choose which domiciles to burgle based on knowledge that the residents will be elsewhere at the time of the break-ins (e.g., those who select their targets via the obituary pages).

A well-traveled urban legend fits the "one theft facilitating a subsequent burglary" pattern of the GPS tale. In the "Ticket Taker" legend, a stolen car is returned to its owners, with the thief leaving in it a note and some theater tickets by way of an apology. But of course the tickets prove to be just a way of emptying the targeted home so that it can be burgled.

Barbara "double take" Mikkelson

Last updated:   25 September 2009

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Sources:

    King Greenwood, Jill.   "Police Get High-Tech Help to Solve String of Burglaries in Suburbs."
    Pittsburgh Tribune Review.   1 November 2007.

    Mallia, Joseph.   "Man Claims Benz, Porsche Stolen in Same Night."
    Newsday.com.   18 January 2009.

    Scanlan, Dan.   "Intruder Breaks Into Woman's Home After Ex-Boyfriend Calls."
    Florida Times-Union.   19 April 2008   (p. O12).

    Scanlan, Dan.   "Three Armed Robberies Take Place in One Night."
    Florida Times-Union.   18 October 2008   (p. O8).

    Birmingham Post.   "Warning to Drivers With Sat Nav."
    23 August 2007   (p. 6).

    News 13 Long Island.   "Police Nab 2 Wanted for 300 Burglaries."
    24 September 2009.