Auto theft still plagues Philadelphia. Here’s how young car thieves say they get away with it.



The first time they hijacked their car, they were mostly bored.


The sun was setting, and two teenagers, aged 15 and 19, were riding a Septa with two other friends, and they had nothing to do. They said they were tired of using public transportation, and wanted an easier way to get around.

“Someone said let’s go get Johnny,” said a teen from West Philadelphia, using Philly slang for a stolen car.

This was it.

They took El to Kensington, where they walked the streets in search of an unsuspecting victim. It was getting dark, and they were about to call her, they said, when they saw a woman coming out of her house. They watched her walk alone to her car, and as soon as she started the engine, they lowered their ski masks and headed off.

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They told the woman that this was their car now. They pulled her out of the driver’s seat, jumped and took off.

They got away with it – back then.

While Philadelphia is experiencing an unprecedented rise in gun violence, the number of car thefts in the city has risen in the past two years.

Through May 25, 546 auto thefts were reported in Philadelphia – more than the entire year of 2020. If this pace continues, the city will approach 1,400 car thefts, a 500% increase from 2019, the year before the pandemic that upends crime patterns.

And while auto thefts make headlines, unattended vehicle thefts have also gone up, from less than 2,000 in 2019 to nearly 9,000 last year, and it continues at an even higher pace.

Increase in car theft Not unique to Philly – last year, Chicago It had more than 1,800, its highest number in decades – but it’s scary nonetheless, with a handful of robberies turning fatal and another leaving victims with lifelong injuries.

Car thefts have hit every part of town, from the dark, one-way blocks of South Philly, to the mid-day stopping area outside City Hall. And even as law enforcement cracks down on crime, with the United States Ministry of Justice In some cases, with tougher federal charges being brought as a deterrent, the toll of losses continues to rise.

The reasons behind the boom remain complex.

The majority of those arrested for car theft are 20 or younger, and Philadelphia police and young people themselves say the crime is partly a fad fueled by social media, with some teens promoting their stolen cars to look tough.

Experts suggest another factor: used cars and their spare parts have increased in value, are stolen by professional crews, and then cut into pieces or shipped abroad.

Police said the increasing use of electronic “master keys”, which are intended to make cars more difficult to steal, may require thieves to wait until they can confront the driver, who is increasingly falling victim to courier and delivery drivers.

“The motive often is to get money, sometimes desperation, sometimes it just might be part of a club,” Deputy Police Commissioner Ben Naish said. “I don’t know what these people have in mind, but it’s still something we focus a lot of attention on [on]And hopefully we can really get it under control.”

Tips to protect yourself from car theft

  • Never leave your car running unattended.
  • Be aware of your surroundings as you get in and out of your vehicle, especially at gas stations, parking lots, and dimly lit areas. If something doesn’t look right, keep driving and park somewhere else.
  • Get in and out of your car quickly – Many burglaries happen when people are sitting in their parked cars.
  • Lock your doors and windows.
  • Irresistible. Give up your keys and call 911.


Earlier this year, the Philadelphia Police established a motor vehicle theft investigation task force along with federal partners, including the FBI, the U.S. Attorney’s Violent Crimes Unit, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

All agencies declined to give interviews for this article. In a statement, US Attorney Jennifer Arbeiter-Williams said the office has received more referrals than ever for federal auto theft cases, with a “100% increase in [charges in] Only the first four months of 2022 throughout 2021.”

Of the 179 people arrested by Philadelphia police for carjacking through late May, two-thirds are 20 or younger, Naish said. He said about a third of them were juveniles of legal age to drive, and some were as young as 12.

Young people were bored during the pandemic, The two young men said, and with schools and community centers closed, some said children were being drawn into crime. They brag on social media and show stolen cars in music videos, and the rise in wearing masks, including ski masks, is making them feel even more daring, as if they can get away with anything.

“There are some indications that social media has been a driving force,” Naish said. “We don’t think it is a coincidence that the post-pandemic will happen.”

Young people told The Inquirer that the number one rule for car theft is not to do it in your area.

Since their first experience in Kensington just over a year ago, the two youngsters, now aged 16 and 20, have stolen at least three more cars, they said. They spoke on condition of anonymity so that they could speak frankly about their experiences without getting into further trouble, and explain the motive behind the crime.

Working in groups of about four people, they used fear, not guns, to get victims to give up their keys. The two were once arrested by the police – the 16-year-old was charged with juvenile delinquency and sentenced to house arrest; The 20-year-old was charged with a felony and sentenced to three years in prison. They said they have not stolen their car since their arrest, and both participate in the nonprofit youth empowerment program that provides mentorship and guidance.

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They said they stole their car in order to have a convenient way of getting around town, but also because their friends were doing it.

“I wanted to have my own thing,” said the 20-year-old, who has been living alone since she was 17.

They said car theft is a crime of opportunity. It doesn’t matter what kind of car it is – it’s about holding a weak person alone and with the car running.

Once the teens got the car, they said, they quickly swapped out the license plate. They said they’d steal a plate from another parked car, or they’d head to a southwest Philadelphia auto shop, where $15 could buy a fake ticket or a new plate.

They said they used the stolen cars to run errands and take friends, and stole additional cars because the police had confiscated or wrecked them.

Jerry Ratcliffe, a Temple professor of criminal justice and a former police officer who specializes in criminal intelligence strategy, said the city’s ongoing armed violence crisis also plays a role in car theft. He said people who engage in back-and-forth retaliation may steal a car for a quick escape from a crime scene, making it difficult for police to trace the incident back to them.

“It’s fueled by the economics and access to guns,” he said. “Used cars have always been a fun outing, but now they are Increase the financial value And it’s not easy to steal.”

In February, police announced the arrests of four people involved in a car theft gang, linked to at least four shootings. Most of the cars were never recovered, and law enforcement sources said the cars could be lost due to illegal overseas shipping.

Philip Woods is a Managing Partner at Sekuma Import Export Inc. , a company based in southwest Philadelphia that legally ships about 1,000 cars a year, mostly to West African countries such as Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. Woods said customers pay about $2,000 to ship cars overseas to African buyers, family members or agents.

Woods said customers must provide valid addresses for the cars they want shipped, which are then verified by US customs. He said that if people brought in a new car or said they “lost the title,” the company would not accept their business. He said the company hasn’t noticed more people trying this than usual.

He said he believes most thieves who export stolen cars do so by renting their own shipping containers and tow trucks, bypassing the verification process at the loading dock.

“If it’s really in the container, I can’t ask questions, only cops or the FBI can,” Woods said.

Car thefts do not require a driver to be in the car, last year they occurred ten times more than car thefts. Sometimes, unattended cars are stolen by tow trucks, Woods said, because it’s easier to load them directly into a shipping container.

This is how a 2014 Dodge Charger was stolen from Bryland Martin on May 17th.

Martin’s car was parked parallel to outside his home in Nice Town Tioga, when the tow truck began spinning around the building around 11:30 p.m., the video shows. It is towed along with its charger, and using a side hitch, the car is slowly moved out onto the street, loaded, and then driven.

Martin, 40, lost his wallet, $1,000 worth of clothes, and his business license. He had insurance, but now has no way to get to his job in Cherry Hill, where he works as a truck driver for a halal food company.

“I work hard just to provide for my family,” he said. “This is a real setback for me.”

Being robbed is terrifying for victims, and some car burglaries have even become fatal, leaving communities in shock.

Nika Burnett, a 22-year-old Oxford Circle resident, said she was afraid to leave her house after dark. Its bloc formed the Township Watch Committee in April, after four gunmen grabbed a neighbor, Rahim Bell, 27, from his car, shooting him in the stomach. He survived, but is still in the hospital recovering.

It hit everyone,” said Burnett, 48, the building’s captain. “People sometimes think that we are used to this kind of thing or that you are modified like this a way of life, which is not true.”

Concerns linger in a cluster of blocks around 19th and Bouvier Streets in South Philadelphia, where earlier this year car thieves stole eight cars in three months. Owners Valentin Palleiro and Eva Mendes said Pizza San Lucas, which has been in that corner for 15 years, now closes at 10 p.m. instead of midnight.

»Read more: Before 12-year-old was killed, a plainclothes police unit in South Philly caused repeated chaos, residents say

The owners of the car said that two men who ordered a pizza delivery van were kidnapped at gunpoint in January. Police said these workers were frequent targets, as offenders could call them at an address and know they would have cash and the car would run.

Palileiro said his pizza driver quit shortly thereafter out of fear. He understood – a few years ago, he was robbed and robbed during delivery too.

San Lucas no longer accepts phone-delivery orders — “Now, I’m so scared,” Mendes said — and their only delivery guy is on a bike.

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