They called it Operation Tourist Trap.
Faced with a 160 per cent spike in thefts from vehicles downtown since April, Victoria police stocked "bait" cars with easily visible suitcases or laptops, iPods and other attractive items. The idea was to make the cars look like they belonged to tourists.
The vehicles were parked on key parts of Government and Douglas streets, in parkades and other areas popular with tourists.
It didn't take long before thieves started taking the bait. Within 48 hours, police had arrested a trio of prolific offenders, while a fourth suspect has been identified.
"Clearly, there was an issue because people were caught inside the vehicles very quickly," said Victoria police Const. Dave Bratzer of the operation, which began Aug. 14 and continued for a week.
"We're very happy with the results.
"Even if you just take one prolific property criminal off the streets, it can have a huge impact in terms of reducing the amount of property crime in our city."
Bratzer said the goal was to protect the 3.5 million tourists who visit the city every year, as well as its 350,000 citizens.
Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce CEO Bruce Carter praised the police, saying their emphasis on tourists makes perfect sense at this time of the year.
"I think it is a good job for both the city and police to target an area that is incredibly important to our economy."
The operation was a joint effort by Victoria police and IMPACT, the Integrated Municipal Provincial Auto Crime Team.
Bait cars, successfully used by Victoria police since 2005, are equipped with GPS-tracking technology and hidden video cameras. When a thief breaks into the vehicle, it sets off a signal that alerts police.
Among those arrested in Victoria was 30-year-old John Koehler, who was caught after breaking into two bait cars in a single night. Koehler has already pleaded guilty and been sentenced to six months in jail.
Bratzer said since 2006, Koehler has been convicted of breaking into vehicles in downtown Victoria on at least six occasions.
Robert Tait, 35, and Steven Patterson, 34, were also arrested.
Bratzer urged drivers to take preventive measures and not leave valuables in cars. He said criminals will break in for very little, sometimes nothing more than a few dollars in change left on the console.
Thieves can be in and out of a vehicle very quickly, he said. Some will pry a window open to get to the door lock, while others use scissors to manoeuvre a lock.
Lately, simply breaking through the glass is a prime method.
"We actually have bait cars that are equipped with glass-break sensors, because - one of the trends we've noticed is we're getting a lot of smashed windows," said Bratzer, noting bait cars can be deployed anywhere, from side streets to driveways and parking lots.
In Victoria, the bait-car program has reduced thefts from autos by 60 per cent in the past eight years, a provincewide trend, he said.
Security upgrades in city parkades have also helped.
At the Yates Street parkade, for example, police calls have dropped by 68 per cent since 2008.
Improvements include more staff training, 24/7 security patrols and windows installed in the stairwells, said city spokeswoman Katie Josephson.
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