A. Garcia / SFVS

(left) Capt. Robert Marino of the LAPD Mission Division shows the Clubs they gave to victims of car thefts.

(right) Kevin Santome and his Club.

Kevin Santome went to visit a friend in Arleta about two months ago for what he thought would be a nice evening.

“I was just there for a couple of hours,” said the 23-year-old Van Nuys resident. “I come out and it’s gone. I go ‘where’s my car?’”

 Santome’s vehicle was stolen from in front of a house that night.

He reported the theft right way. LAPD officers found Santome’s car two weeks later — still full of gas and with little damage.

“They must have driven it no more than 20 miles. It wasn’t too far away from where they took it,” Santome said. “They just stole all of my stuff. I had some valuables there.”

Fortunately, insurance covered his rental vehicle for those two weeks. “Otherwise I would have been screwed,” said Santome, a Pierce College student who works at Rocket Fizz in Sherman Oaks. “I need a car everyday.”

What Santome didn’t have was a car alarm or anti-theft device. And his vehicle — a 2000 Honda Civic — is one of the most sought after by auto thieves.

Those are two attractions that can make car owners susceptible to vehicle theft, according to Capt. Robert Marino, LAPD Mission Area Commanding Officer.

This week the Mission Area station, in partnership with Winner International, provided a dozen stolen car victims with “The Club” — which locks around the steering wheel as a deterrent for car thieves — as a way to help protect their vehicles.

“When installed, it’s a visual deterrent,” Marino said. “It prevents the steering wheel from being turned and they may think twice about (stealing it).”

“The Club” was initially developed by Charles Johnson, a mechanic, and marketed by the late James Winner, who established Winner International. At one time the device was highly popular among consumers as a relatively inexpensive anti-theft device; by 1994, sales had reached 14 million units.

The recent rise of stolen cars locally and statewide should have car owners considering many methods of protection.

Marino said 320 other residents in the area patrolled by Mission Area have had their cars stolen so far this year, a 25 percent increase compared with the same time last year.

The problem is most acute in Panorama City and Sylmar, he said.

The problem is also statewide. According to statistical data, 180,000 vehicles were stolen including motorcycles, trucks, SUV’s, commercial trucks, recreational vehicles and trailers in 2015. And 50 percent of them were taken in Southern California.

The loss to California residents is estimated at $1 billion, according to the California Highway Patrol.

Los Angeles has had an uptick in the general overall crime this year, that includes vehicle theft. But every year approximately 30,000 vehicles are stolen in the city.

Through April 16, the LAPD’s Valley Bureau saw a 13 percent increase in car thefts (1,449 as opposed to 1,288) compared to the same period last year.

Many of the stolen vehicles are Hondas and Toyotas, ranging from the early 1990s to the 2000s because those model years “are easier to get into than new ones with chips in their keys,” Marino said.

And owners of older model cars may not think those cars are attractive and often don’t equip them with an anti-theft devices.

Marino said that — as in the case of Santome’s vehicle — thieves often take the cars for “a joy ride” and often leave them not too far away from where they stole them. The Mission Area has an 89 percent car recovery rate.

“We have a lot of happy customers,” said Cynthia Gonzales, a Mission Area Auto Theft detective, who nevertheless tells people to be aware of their surroundings and make sure their cars are properly secured when leaving it somewhere.

Santome is one of those happy customers. Aside from some problems with the door locks — the thieves apparently jammed them during the theft — his car was still in working order.

“This is great. It’s wonderful. I was thinking of getting one,” he said after getting a free “Club.”

“I’m going to use it. I think it can definitely prevent or at least make it difficult for somebody to take the car because a lot of thieves are lazy and they may not want to bother with it.”

TIPS TO PREVENT BEING THE VICTIM OF CAR THEFT

• Always take your keys and don’t leave them in your vehicle

• Close your windows and lock your doors

• Park your vehicle in well-lit areas

• Never walk away from your vehicle while it is running

• Park your vehicle in your garage, if possible

• Utilize various anti-theft devices

• Never leave valuables in your vehicle, especially in plain site

If you find yourself in the unfortunate circumstance where your vehicle has been stolen, follow these steps when you contact your local police department:

• Give them your license plate number

• The make, model and color of the car

• The VIN number and any other identifying characteristics

• The last known location of the vehicle

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