bait carIn 1998, the Minneapolis Police Department instituted one of the nation’s first bait car programs: the Auto Theft Prevention Program. Working with local insurance businesses, the MPD introduced a handful of “hot” cars outfitted with GPS systems, engine kill switches, and auto-locking doors. They chose unassuming cars like Honda Accords and Toyota Camry’s, parked the vehicles in high-crime areas, and then dropped the keys on the front seats – trot line fishing for thieves, as it were.

Fifteen minutes after a crook slid away with his cargo, sirens would explode behind his ears, and the engine would stutter, and the door locks would disappear like so many hermit crabs. In the first twelve years of the program, the MPD brought down more than 340 criminals. Only one case went to trial. Regional auto theft dropped by more than 60 percent. It was good police work, Silicon Valley-style.

Almost any vehicle can be transformed into a bait car for $2,500-$7,000. The brain of the kit is called the DVR, which is installed in the trunk or beneath the back seat. Most are powered by deep-cycle marine batteries.

When a thief opens the door, magnetic sensors beam out alerts to 911, a department dispatch office or private cell phones. After the alert escapes into the airwaves, the other features kick on.

Sensitive microphones embedded in the headliner or the steering wheel record audio, while micro cameras hidden in the side speakers, rearview mirror or dashboard trim record video. Older units stored the data on the DVR, but many modern kits transmit the information in real-time via Wi-Fi.

Old-school bait cars used homing devices. Today, most use GPS trackers, which send out speed notifications and enforce geographic boundaries. Some high-tech kits can even control the radio, horn and headlights. After surreptitiously following the bait car, officers can remotely kill the engine and lock the doors to entrap the stunned criminal.

Bait cars lay bare the techniques of career auto thieves. Now, drivers know to park in well-lit areas, use a steering-wheel lock, and purchase a vehicle with a transponder key. Visionaries hope to use bait car technologies in private homes and commercial businesses to catch cat burglars in real time.

Police officers are now fishers of men, but the difference between a fish caught on a hook and a thief trapped in a bait car is that one is dead before the skinning. More on bait cars in Vancouver here: Bait Cars