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Will your car be stolen next?
It's a cold January morning. You like your car warmed up before you drive it off, so you briskly walk to it and start it up. You run back inside your warm house and sip a cup of coffee for a few minutes. You return and the car is ... gone?

Not a far-fetched scenario. In fact, it continues to play itself out in winter months, sometimes in Ceres.

Police warn you: resist the temptation to leave a running car unattended. Plenty of thieves roam neighborhoods in search for white clouds coming from tailgates with no one inside so they can steal it.

While Stanislaus County may no longer be the auto theft capital of the nation, car stealing is still a big problem for local law enforcement. Anything that car owners can do to make it easier for thieves - such as unattended warm-ups - only exacerbates the problem.

"Warm-up thefts" are a problem, said Lt. Jeff Morris of the Stanislaus County Auto Theft Task Force (StanCATT). Thieves like this method of car theft because they're easy to find and easy to pull off.

Morris estimates that 10 percent of auto thefts last year were due to drivers leaving keys inside the ignition or another spot in the car. That number only climbs in cold weather months.

"You have to assume that there is always a thief just waiting for the opportunity to steal your car," said Chief of Police Art deWerk. He also advises that drivers never leave keys in the ignition or in the car "not even for a few seconds."

In Stanislaus County the auto theft rate has decreased but is still a major problem. From January to September, 2008, auto thefts decreased 19.5 percent as compared to the same period in 2007. In 2007 there were 3,788 auto thefts countywide.

According to Morris, 420 vehicles were stolen in Ceres from January to November 2008. That number was 18 percent less than the 533 thefts recorded January to November of 2007.

Not good enough for deWerk. He called the auto theft rate a "matter of concern."

"I have asserted for a long time that we have too many parolees and persons on probation visiting or residing in this community, which tends to explain the fact that auto theft reduction here is not as great as the average of the other jurisdictions in Stanislaus County."

Countywide auto theft was down about 20 to 23 percent between 2008 and 2007 records.

Morris credits a number of factors for the decreased auto theft rate, chiefly the use of "bait" cars.

Bait cars are especially equipped cars that can be controlled by police remotely to lock doors and shut off the ignition. They also have tracking devices and are equipped with video cameras to aid in courtroom prosecution.

"We've kept up our emphasis on bait cars and that's been a big deterrent," said Morris. "A lot of key players we've arrested (multiple offenders) have all told officers they don't ever take cars left with a key in them because they think it could be a bait car."

Public education has also helped. Police say vehicle owners can make a huge difference in reducing thefts. Any deterrent to thieves can help ward them off. When the car is parked at work or overnight at your house, try using the steering wheel locking device called "the Club" or installing a car alarm.

Owners should also park a vehicle in a secure location and if available, always park in the garage. Another simple act is locking your car whenever you leave it. Other common sense actions include never leaving valuables in plain view, and never storing the car's pink slip in the car. Police also say that you should always ask to see the identification of the person selling you a vehicle. Make sure the seller is the owner of the vehicle and always get the title when buying from a private party.

When selling a vehicle, accompany the perspective buyer during the test drive. Make sure the subject has a valid driver's license. Make sure large money transactions are made in a conspicuous location, preferably a bank. If you are suspicious of the buyer avoid the transaction.

The public can help others from becoming victims as well. Morris said auto thieves work at all hours and that suspicious activity should be reported to police. Suspicious activities can include vehicles driving at night without headlights, vehicles driving through the area several times, vehicles which are not known to the area, people who are consistently driving different vehicles and suspicious persons looking into parked vehicles.

A big problem for StanCATT is the use of a "shaved key," which is a key filed down for use in older cars - particularly foreign cars - where the ignition locks get worn out over years of use.