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And My Car Was Gone

Rochester’s car theft epidemic hits home

By Mike Costanza

Damage to the steering column. The insurance adjuster said repairs to the Sonata would have cost over $11,000 — if it could be repaired at all. A few hours in the hands of car thieves led to a trip to a junkyard.

On May 1, found nothing in my parking space but broken glass. Thieves had stolen my beloved, carefully maintained, fully-paid-off Hyundai Sonata.

I felt as if I’d been kicked in the chest.

Mine was just one of the 1,531 cars that were stolen in Rochester between Jan. 1 and June 1, most of them Kias and Hyundais. That’s an average of over 12 a day. By comparison, only 1,135 cars were stolen in the city in all of 2022, according to a recent Democrat and Chronicle article.

A neighbor’s door camera caught the thieves that sunny morning as they quickly and efficiently stole my 2014 Sonata. Two cars pulled into the parking lot of my apartment in Rochester’s Neighborhood of the Arts (NOTA) at about 11 a.m. One parked next to my car close enough to conceal the thieves’ actions, and a second parked close by — probably a lookout. The two in the first car, which was another Hyundai, wore hooded sweatshirts — one black, one white. The hoods of both were cinched so tight around the thieves’ heads that only their eyes showed.

It was broad daylight, my car was parked on a raised space close to the street and and cars were passing on a nearby main road, but the pair appeared to work without fear of discovery. Black sweatshirt quickly and quietly broke my rear window. Instead of opening that door, which would have set off my Sonata’s alarm, he climbed in through the window.

After he climbed into my car, Black sweatshirt smashed the plastic casing of its steering column and started it. Due to flaws in their security systems’ software, some years and models of Hyundais and Kias are very easy for thieves to start. There’s even a video of the procedure on social media.

White sweatshirt joined Black sweatshirt, and the pair drove off, followed by the lookout. They left the other Hyundai behind with its engine running. I later learned that it, too, had been stolen.

Police officers found my car about two hours later, after the thieves had crashed it into a tree and fled. They’d been so relaxed as they’d cruised the city that they’d stopped for fast food — I found the bag when I went to Rochester’s impound lot to look my car over. The vehicle was so badly damaged that my insurance company declared it a write-off — too damaged to be worth fixing. Though in my early 70s, I now have to spend much of each day looking for any car I can afford on my very limited income

Rochester Police Department Lt. Greg Bello says many local car thieves are juveniles.

“At times, the stolen vehicles have been used for much more serious crimes, and at other times they appear to be simply joyriding,” he says.

Bello says RPD has distributed about 1,000 steering wheel locks to Kia and Hyundai owners in response to the car thefts, and worked with other local law enforcement agencies to identify trends and suspects.

“We have also put numerous focused deterrence details out, targeting the thieves,” he says.

The department is also working with the Monroe County District Attorney’s Office and other county law enforcement offices in order to see to it that the perpetrators of car thefts are punished.

Though cars continue to be stolen, RPD’s efforts could be having an effect.

“Although still way too high, the numbers appear to be dropping,” Bello says. “That being said, we are continuing to work on additional methods of enforcement and education, in order to reduce these numbers further.”

That’s cold comfort for Bonnie E. The NOTA resident, who asked that this magazine use only the first letter of her last name, heard a knock on her door at 1 a.m. on May 1. When she opened it, a police officer told her that her 2012 Sonata had been stolen, and was in the city’s impound lot.

When asked how she felt about suffering the theft, E struggled to find the right words.

“Violated,” she said.

She’s also angry.

“The teenagers, or whoever it was that took the car, if they are caught, the police just give them a tap on the wrist and send them home,” she says. “It just isn’t right.”

E’s insurance company has given her a check to cover her car’s damages, but she’s not sure it can be fixed. Buying another vehicle would be a struggle.

“I’m barely making ends meet right now, but I’ve got to have a car to get around,” E says.

Kia and Hyundai have found ways to fix the software flaws that make some of their vehicles easy to steal, but the owners of those vehicles have to schedule appointments with dealers in order to have the work done.

Mike Costanza is a contributing writer for 55 PLUS magazine and other publications that serve the Rochester area. He has called the Neighborhood of the Arts home since 2001.