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Beware: 'Car shoppers' going on theft spree

When young people go "car shopping" in New Richmond, the result doesn't have anything to do with stimulating the local economy.

According to New Richmond Police Sergeant Craig Yehlik, the community has seen an increase in the number of thefts from motor vehicles over the past year or so.

The problem is particularly troublesome in the summer, when young people aren't in school and valuables are left in unlocked cars more often.

"Last summer we had a rash of vehicle break-ins," he said. "They usually stole petty things, like change or cigarettes, but there were also bigger things like guns, iPods, GPS systems or snowboards. Anything they can use or sell to friends."

When police occasionally did catch up with the young thieves, Yehlik said some admitted that they and their friends were out "car shopping."

The term refers to a group of friends cruising the streets of the community at night, looking for unlocked cars with valuables inside.

Yehlik said the thieves usually don't go to the trouble of actually breaking into locked vehicles. The unlocked ones keep them busy enough.

"They get a group together and go out," he said. "I think this is a big thing right now for the youth. I don't think it's a New Richmond specific problem."

Yehlik said the best way to avoid getting burned by "car shoppers" is to lock your vehicle doors and not leave valuables inside.

"Take your valuables with you," he said. "Trying to hide them under the seat or in the glove box doesn't work. They may be hidden, but the kids are finding them anyway."

The car shopping sprees usually happen at night, with a group of young people working a three- or four-block area. They might be hopping out of a car driven by a friend, or they might be riding bicycles around town together.

Yehlik said the community should be on the look-out for "suspicious activity" that may appear to be car shopping. He urged residents to report the activity immediately to police, so that the suspects can be questioned.

"And don't make the call to police known to the suspects and try to scare them away," he added. "We want to be able to catch them."

Residents are also asked to "be a good witness" when they do see something. Getting a good description of vehicles, the suspects and the clothes they're wearing can go a long way toward capturing the thieves, he said.

"Please do not confront these thieves," he said. "We have had no armed confrontation with the car shoppers at this point, but it may not be safe to approach them or startle them."

Yehlik also encouraged the public to write down serial numbers of new products they purchase and keep those numbers in a safe place. That list can come in handy when police are trying to identify stolen property.

If neighbors watch out for each other, Yehlik said, the thefts can be minimized throughout the area.

"Last year we got hit pretty hard," he said. "We've always had a few people rummaging through cars, but it got out of hand last summer."

Yehlik worries that this summer could be even worse, as the challenging economy continues to impact families and individuals. If fewer young people can find summer jobs, they might have extra time on their hands for illegal activities.

As the weather warms up, the police department wants people to be aware of the growing problem and take action.

"We just all need to be more diligent," he said.

To provide information on any car shopping cases, contact the Police Department at (715) 246-6667. An anonymous tip can be left on the City of New Richmond Police Department Web page at