Car Thieves Target “Puffers” in Cold Weather

Car thieves in Prince George’s County, Maryland, have been targeting morning commuters who leave their cars running, but unattended, during the recent stretch of cold weather.

Police reports and a series of undercover surveillance by the News4 I-Team show a rash of recent car thefts and widespread risk among drivers who idle their cars in their driveways during the morning rush hour.

Surveillance video shows an unattended car being stolen from a Beltsville, Maryland, driveway in December.

Prince George’s County Police reports show 244 car thefts between Jan. 1 and Jan. 29. Though a decrease from the same period in 2014, police said the large number of thefts shows criminals are capitalizing on the cold weather practice of “car warming.” A Prince George’s police official said multiple car thieves have been canvassing the county, some as early as 5 a.m., looking for unoccupied cars being warmed in driveways. County police use the phrase “puffers” to describe the cars, a reference to the puffs of tailpipe emissions easily seen from a distance by thieves.

Prince George’s County Police Cpl. Nicole Hubbard said the thieves operate efficiently and specifically target the coldest weather weeks to maximize their targets.

"This is their job,” Hubbard said. “They get up in the morning, just like you go to work."

A specialized Maryland police task force, the Washington-Area Vehicle Enforcement (WAVE) team, is conducting undercover sweeps to catch thieves attempting to target “puffers.” The unit has also been stopping – and in some cases issuing citations to – car owners who warm their automobiles without remaining inside of them. Maryland law prohibits "car warming," leaving a car unaccompanied while it runs. The task force includes Prince George’s County Police, Anne Arundel County Police, Maryland State Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigations.

Surveillance video of a car being stolen from a Sunoco gas station.

I-Team cameras found dozens of “puffer” cars in a pair of surveillance efforts in Prince George’s County in January. In one instance, a driver left her car unattended and warming for more than 20 minutes before police asked her to come out of her home and remove the car keys from the ignition.

Police issued a warning to a driver who’d used an “auto start” device to warm her car while she was in her home showering.

“I have leather seats, so the seats are super cold,” that woman told the I-Team. “Right now I have on two layers and I can still feel (the cold)."

The I-Team also captured images of suspected car thieves targeting patrons at local gas stations. WAVE team officers stopped and arrested a pair of suspected thieves who’d circled gas stations near Central Avenue in Capitol Heights. I-Team cameras captured images of the arrest, in which police reported finding a loaded handgun and a large amount of marijuana. In multiple recent cases, gas station security cameras showed thieves quickly pouncing, stealing cars in which drivers left the engines running while standing away from the vehicle.

Hubbard said the thieves who target “puffers” have often been linked to other crime rings, using the proceeds derived from the stolen cars to fund other criminal activities.

Surveillance video showing the theft of a car from a gas station.
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