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Living in the notorious car theft capital
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California is known as a car-culture state. Driving down Highway 1 with the wind blowing through your hair and the ocean at your side is practically a required activity to be called a true Californian.

Of course, this car culture has its draw backs - the high cost of gasoline, reduced importance paid to public transportation, bad air quality and car thieves.

Auto theft is where the Central Valley really stands out and makes one think twice before buying that classic convertible.

The Modesto Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes Ceres, Hughson and the surrounding communities, has placed in the top three spots for having the highest auto thefts per capita over the past few years, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), which tracks auto thefts.

Yes, the Stanislaus County area is like honey to the worker bees of auto theft rings. And unlike in the 2000 movie "Gone in 60 Seconds," in which retired master car thief - Nicolas Cage - reunites with his old cohorts, including Angelina Jolie, to steal 50 cars in one night to save his brother's life - most car thieves have far less honorable motivations.

In "Gone in 60 Seconds" Cage and Jolie must steal 50 classic cars and modern luxury vehicles. The real world of auto theft affects working class citizens far more than those who can afford high-profile rides. The number one most stolen car in 2009 was the 1991 Honda Accord.

None of the top 10 most stolen cars are what you'd find in any millionaire's garage. After the Accord, the next most stolen vehicle is the 1995 Honda Civic, followed by the 1989 Toyota Camry, 1994 Acura Integra, 1994 Nissan Sentra, 2007 Toyota Corolla, 1995 Saturn SL, 1997 Nissan Altima, 1997 Ford F150 Pickup and the 1986 Toyota Pickup 4x2.

Last week my mother became one of the thousands of people who have had their car stolen in Stanislaus County.

Her story is similar to those of other auto theft victims. She was at work and when she went to leave for the day, her keys - and car - were nowhere to be found. She either left the keys in the car or someone stole the keys while she was working.

Unlike the majority of other auto thefts, however, my mother's car was found days later - intact. Three days after the theft my mother caught a bus for a trip into the foothills. While riding through downtown Modesto on the bus, she happened to look out the window and spot her car parked alongside the street. She said she recognized the flowers that were in a vase near the steering wheel. She immediately called the police, who then recovered the car.

The car was taken from the parking lot of the Modesto Senior Center off of Scenic Drive last Thursday and she found her car parked on the corner of G and 16th streets in downtown Modesto on Saturday.

Yes, she found the car just blocks away from the Modesto Police Department.

Anyway... it is unusual for the police to find a stolen car in one piece. Most stolen vehicles are stripped down for their parts and then discarded.

"Through the end of August (2010) there were 97,655 vehicles that were listed as stolen and not yet recovered," said Joe Wehrle, NICB president and CEO.

"As our 'Hot Wheels' report shows, many of these thefts end up in chop shops where they are turned into replacement parts," he said.

Once a car is stolen it is usually gone for good. So if you want to hang on to your own piece of freedom on wheels, law enforcement recommends a layered approach to security.

The Stanislaus County Auto Theft Task Force suggests always locking car doors and rolling up windows; removing the keys from the ignition; and parking in a well-lit area. Adding an alarm system or steering wheel lock is also recommended.

Until the majority of Californians start using public transportation as their primary way of getting from point A to point B, auto thieves will continue to prey on Valley motorists.

Maybe George Lucas could do a remake of "American Graffiti" that features a night in the life of Modesto teenagers who ride the bus around town talking about their hopes and fears for the future instead of cruising down McHenry.