Theft and you: law enforcement heads offer tips, reminders

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Theft in Lincoln County, including that related to drug use, is an ongoing problem, but there are steps local residents can take to keep themselves and their neighbors from becoming victims.

“I think if you’re a victim, obviously it’s a growing problem,” said Lincoln County Sheriff Roby Bowe.

Overall for Lincoln County, smash-and-grab thefts are down a little, but there has been a rash of burglaries, he said. The recent trend of has been for burglaries involving higher dollar amounts.

Bowe said that is contributed to by thieves returning several times to the same property when owners are away.

“We’ve concentrated on those, and we have several people in jail for that,” he said.

Both seasonal full time residents have been targeted for burglaries where thieves have returned multiple times, Bowe said. In the case of full time residents, the burglars learn the homeowner’s pattern.

In Libby, theft declines some during the winter, said Libby Chief of Police Scott Kessel. That seems to come from fewer items stolen from parked vehicles.

Vehicle breakins and thefts from storage lockers comprise the majority of theft in Libby, Kessel said. Unlike homes out in the county where thieves may be able to come and go unobserved, Libby doesn’t have nearly as many home burglaries.

Commonly stolen items around Troy include those left unsecured around a property, Troy Police Chief Katie Davis said. In some cases, they have even had people steal a bicycle, ride it to their destination, and then just ditch it.

Bowe said that the county doesn’t really see the contrast between seasons.

“Most of them that are doing it, are doing it because of drug and alcohol addiction, and that doesn’t stop much in the winter,” he said.

Ounce of prevention

Bowe advised that setting up trail cameras can help law enforcement catch thieves. He also advised having neighbors check on a property if the homeowner is gone for any length of time.

Having someone checking on the property regularly can also serve as a deterrent, by just having a car in the driveway and lights on at random times, he said.

“Doing some of the basic steps does go a long way as far as deterring them,” Bowe said.

In Libby, the majority of thefts from vehicles happen with cars left unlocked and valuables in plain site, Kessel said. With storage units or other buildings that are padlocked, Kessel said that the difference can be investing the few dollars more in a good lock.

“Lock your vehicles. Lock your buildings, your houses, your storage sheds,” Kessel said.

Staying vigilant can help everyone, Bowe said.

“If you see something suspicious, or doesn’t look right, give us a call,” he said. “Your gut feeling is usually right.”

It’s important to report as soon as possible to increase the probability law enforcement will stop a crime in progress, rather than have to investigate a crime that has already been committed, Kessel said.

When a person sees something suspicious or finds they have been a victim of theft, their first act should be to call law enforcement, not post it on Facebook, Kessel said. People shouldn’t hesitate to call 911 if they believe they have witnessed criminal activity.

“Call us. When I read about it on social media a day after the fact, it doesn’t do any good,” Kessel said.

Davis said she too often would not even hear about thefts around Troy if she didn’t see a post about it on Facebook.

It can also help for residents to keep close track of what they have, Davis said. Many belated theft reports they receive come because an item is missing for weeks, but the owner doesn’t notice that the item is missing.

But locking things against outside theft isn’t the only concern, Kessel said.

“We see a lot of prescription meds that are taken,” he said. “Be aware of who’s in your house. Sometimes it’s a family members with an addiction problem, and if you’re aware of that, then you can take your own personal steps to safeguard your medications.”

Davis said that she has also encountered issues with residents who know who stole something, so they simple go and “recover” it themselves.

“Let us know. Let us help you. Help us help you,” Davis said.

Aside from the obvious danger of attempting to retrieve a stolen item without police, Davis said that when the theft goes unreported, the department is getting a less accurate picture of crime patterns and the perpetrators aren’t being held accountable.

“Lock your cars, even if you’re just running into the grocery store,” Davis said.

It can be easy in a small, close community to assume theft won’t happen to you, but it can, and easy steps can help prevent it, she said.

Getting it back

The faster a theft is reported, the better the chance items will be recovered, all three law enforcement heads agreed.

“A lot of it too is, they sell it quickly because they need money to buy drugs,” Bowe said. “It turns over really quickly.”

In addition, recording serial numbers, brands and models can help law enforcement.

Without some kind of identification number, some items can’t even be entered into the national database shared by law enforcement for tracking stolen items, Kessel said.

If property is recovered in another community or another state and has a serial number, law enforcement can search for it in the FBI’s National Crime Information Center’s database. If it has been reported stolen, it can be returned to the owner.

Kessel advised taking pictures with a cell phone of serial numbers as a quick way to record them.

In addition, even items that don’t have a serial number, owners can create their own identification number and attach it to the item, Davis said. Such an owner assigned identification number can be entered into the national database to help identify stolen items.

“You can stamp your phone number in it, or your name, so there’s further proof that it’s yours,” she said.

Even Troy has a large collection of unclaimed items that may never be tracked back to the original owner, because they were never reported stolen, Davis said. Law enforcement may not recover everything, but once it is in the database, it stays there until it is recovered.

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