‘Hot Plates’: Fallout from Portland’s ‘Hot Car’, homeless problem

With more than 7,500 cars stolen in the last 12 months, license plate theft on the rise

People stealing license plates is a growing problem in Portland, Oct. 20, 2017. (KOIN)

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Stolen license plates may not be an epidemic — but it happens enough that police want residents to be aware and informed. According to authorities, stolen license plates have become more common in the last 5 years.

“It is more frequent, I think than most people would realize, having switched plates or stolen plates,” Portland Police officer Jason Graf said.

While authorities are aware of the issue, David House with the Oregon DMV said, “There’s no mechanism that alerts us automatically.”

Car thieves steal license plates to give them more time to drive around a stolen car

Resident Jill Bartmess recently had her license plates stolen off her 1998 Nissan Maxima.

“It had to have been between 5 a.m. and then I saw at like 11 a.m. they were gone,” Bartmess said.

Her stolen plates were only the beginning. The next week — her entire car was gone, with her new replacement plates as well.

Officer Jason Graf with Portland Police, Oct. 21, 2017. (KOIN)

“It would be just — my plates were stolen and then my car gets stolen,” Bartmess said. “It seems like it had to be somebody that was watching me or saw me parking here all the time.”

Next to the spot that Bartmess’s car was stolen, was another car– an older Subaru — with a similar description: a white, mid 90’s 4-door sedan.KOIN 6 News ran the plates on that car, and learned it was stolen too. The thief had apparently swapped cars.

But why do thieves target license plates?

According to Graf, it gives them more time to drive around a stolen car because they know that within hours that car will be reported stolen.

“They can buy more time when they steal a car and they can drive around that car longer if they can get a set of clean plates off a vehicle that hasn’t been stolen,” Graf said.

Graf said Portland Police don’t keep count of how many plates are stolen, but they “do track” stolen cars. According to the Portland Police Bureau, there have been more than 7,500 stolen cars in the last 12 months — which is 60% more than 2 years ago.

He also said license plates are the “single biggest tool” police use to find out if a car is stolen.

Given the rising number of “hot cars,” it’s no wonder more “hot plates” are being swiped, swapped or sold. Some are even ending up for sale online, making it harder for buyers to know if the plates they’re buying are legitimate.

“You’re buying something on faith only to find out later whether it’s legitimate or not,” House said.

House said they’re seeing more plates being sold to buyers, who want to sidestep DEQ testing and registration.

Some Portland Police cars have installed automatic license plate recognition that helps identify stolen cars and license plates, Oct. 21, 2017. (KOIN)

“Thieves are creative and conditions are always changing, so there might be something that we haven’t even thought of that could be behind plate theft that wasn’t there before,” House said.

For those who work with cars a lot, hearing about the issue of stolen license plates isn’t anything new.

Chuck Wise, who owns a car dealership, said, “I think it’s rampant. I think it’s going on probably in all of the state, let alone in Portland.”

Wise said license plate thieves are regular visitors at businesses up and down Southeast 82nd Avenue.

“There’s that dark side that’s out stealing them and selling them and probably trading them for drugs or something to that effect would be my guess,” Wise said.

Tamper-proof screws, regularly checking your plates ways to deter thieves

In Bartmess’ case, she found her car a couple miles away before police did — wearing its 3rd set of plates in 2 weeks and clearly had been lived in.

“I saw my car, but it didn’t have my plates on it and it was filled with trash,” Bartmess said. “It was definitely filled to the brim with trash and needles and that was the yucky thing.”

In recent years, Portland Police have installed automatic license plate recognition — or ALPR technology — on some of their cars to help track down stolen cars and plates.

“It absolutely helps read license plates and find stolen vehicles at a higher rate than an officer could without this system,” Graf said.

Tamper-proof screws also help deter plate thieves and so does regularly checking your plates like Bartmess did.

“It seemed really weird to me that it’s such a common occurrence like it’s not a big deal, but it feels like it’s a big deal,” Bartmess said.

But according to Graf, the best defense is to be aware of the problem to begin with.