Darin Zethraus was visiting family in California in July when he got a troubling alert from OnStar, the security and navigation system in his car.
Somebody was breaking into his Chevrolet SS parked at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.
About 22 minutes later, the car was recorded as having driven out the north exit of the airport, never to be seen by Zethraus again.
Zethraus said he thought he had done everything right. He parked his 2017 Chevy in the garage at Terminal A in a well-lit spot, as close to the building as possible. But his common sense safety measures didn’t made a difference.
Thieves have been busy at DFW. Reports of stolen cars have surged over the past two years, with this year tracking already to be twice as many as last year.
As of late July, at least 111 people have reported their cars stolen from the airport this year. That’s nearly as high as all the thefts reported in 2022, which totaled 118. And it’s more than three times the number of car thefts in 2019, before the pandemic’s interruption of travel.
The same week Zethraus lost his car, there were multiple reports of other vehicles stolen at DFW. Kate Teams of Fort Worth said someone took her car on July 12, the same day someone stole Zethraus’ Chevrolet. When she reported the theft, airport police told her four other vehicles had been stolen from Terminal A that day.
Since then, at least two people have been arrested in connection with car thefts at DFW, reported WFAA. But the problem hasn’t been limited to one week in July.
Chris McLaughlin, the airport’s executive vice president of operations, said in a statement to the Star-Telegram that DFW employs its own police department to patrol the 28-square-mile property at all times.
The department has about 200 officers who are required to be licensed by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, like other police officers in Texas.
“The airport has many types of layers of security, both seen and unseen by the public,” he wrote in the statement.
McLaughlin also noted that airport police coordinate with local, state and federal law enforcement to “share information about criminal rings, trending issues and best practices for disrupting crime.” And, airport officials say this type of activity is spiking nationwide.
Still, the rise in reported vehicle thefts at DFW is stark.
McLaughlin said that compared to similar airports, “we find ourselves at the lower end of the rate of thefts.”
With more than 7.2 million vehicles parked at DFW from January to July, “the overall rate of stolen vehicles from airport property is less than 14 cars per 1 million parked vehicles,” he said.
DFW has about 40,000 parking spaces across five terminal garages, two express lots and two remote lots. The airport is the second-busiest in the world for passengers, behind Hartsfield-Jackson International in Atlanta.
The Star-Telegram spoke to a representative from the Atlanta Police Department, which is responsible for Hartsfield-Jackson. In 2021, the airport saw a spate of rental car thefts, causing the annual count to jump to 180.
But in the first seven months of 2023, only 26 vehicles have been reported stolen. Hartsfield-Jackson has about 30,000 parking spaces.
Reported car theft numbers at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport, which is smaller than DFW, are higher than DFW’s:
2023 (through July): 186
Houston’s airport has about 27,000 parking spaces and is the 15th busiest in the country.
The Houston Police Department identified an auto theft ring of eight to 10 people who were targeting airport garages, Houston station ABC13 has reported.
McLaughlin from DFW pointed to crime rings as helping drive the rise in thefts here. Two people arrested Aug. 15 are believed to be connected to the thefts of four vehicles. The suspects were charged with theft and engaging in organized criminal activity. A third suspect working with the two suspects is still at large, McLaughlin said.
“This is just one example of the work being done to disrupt this kind of activity,” he wrote.
Representatives for Houston’s airport did not respond to the Star-Telegram’s request for comment in time for publishing.
In part, DFW attributes the rise in thefts to national trends.
It’s true: car thefts have increased everywhere – not just the airport.
Nationally, more than 1 million cars were reported stolen in 2022, meaning car thefts increased 7% from 2021, according to data from the National Insurance Crime Bureau
Between 2021 and 2022, car thefts jumped 10% in Texas. Illinois experienced the steepest jump in car thefts with an increase of 35% between 2021 and 2022.
Fort Worth is seeing a smaller rise in thefts, according to police crime reports. In the first quarter of 2021, 771 cars were reported stolen. In that same period in 2022, 808 were stolen. That’s an increase of just under 5%.
For the first three months of 2023, car thefts in the city were about the same as a year earlier.
Which cars are getting targeted?
In determining the risk of parking at the airport, the calculation depends on the type of car in question.
Nearly half of the cars stolen from DFW airport in the first half of this year were Dodge vehicles.
Here are the numbers:
The second- and third-most targeted makes were Jeep, with 14 thefts, and Chevrolet with 10.
Industry changes could explain the popularity of these cars.
Dodge announced it will stop producing Chargers and Challengers in 2023 due to the brand’s transition to election vehicles.
Dispatches from DFW police confirm this trend.
“Investigators see a general pattern recently of high-performance vehicles and muscle cars and trucks as a prime target of these criminals,” said McLaughlin.
The airport recommends that owners of these kinds of vehicles consider additional precautions, like updating vehicle firmware, locking doors, removing valuables and purchasing a wheel locking device.
“We continue to ask the public to ‘see something, say something’ and report any suspicious activity to police of airport employees,” McLaughlin said.
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