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Have you seen this car? Law enforcement takes to social media as auto thefts rise

BEMIDJI—As the number of auto thefts creeps up each year, local law enforcement has taken to social media to combat the crime and attempt to return the vehicles to their owners.

Auto theft investigator Ryan Riley said the Bemidji Police Department's recent posts asking the public to be on the lookout for certain vehicles have paid off.

"A lot of people are on social media, and it gets out faster," Riley said. "If one person can see the stolen vehicle and make a phone call, then it gets back faster, obviously."

Riley said an increase in social media posts doesn't necessarily mean motor vehicle thefts are more common. But data from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension's Uniform Crime Report shows that more and more thefts are being reported each year.

In 2015, for example, there were 32 reports of motor vehicle theft in Bemidji, the same as in 2014. In 2016, there were 42 reports and in 2017 there were 60.

Beltrami County followed the same trend until 2017, when reports of motor vehicle thefts dropped. The county saw 25 reports in 2015, 42 reports in 2016 and 38 reports in 2017.

Many reports of auto theft arise from civil issues, Riley said. Often, a person will lend a friend their car and report it stolen when it isn't returned.

"We might end up with 30 or 40 reports of auto theft a quarter, and then once you investigate we end up with maybe a dozen actual vehicle thefts," Riley said. "It gets weaned out, and you end up with a much lower number than originally reported."

Riley, who has held his position for about a month, investigates motor vehicle thefts for both the city and the county. His salary is paid in part by grants; grant money also pays for equipment and community education.

Police work to reduce the numbers of motor vehicle thefts by teaching community members how to keep their cars safe. Riley has spoken at driver's education classes and senior centers, and the department plans to begin posting more information on Facebook in an effort to curb the crime.

Drivers must make sure not to leave their cars running when they're not nearby, and should not keep spare keys in their cars, Riley said. It is also important to avoid leaving valuables in a vehicle. Otherwise, it may become a target.

"There is a percentage of these thefts that had the keys in the car," Riley said. "Either the car was running, or they had a spare key somewhere inside the car that somebody could access."

The BCA's statistics show that in 2016, 45 percent of motor vehicle thefts in Bemidji were cleared, down from 53 percent in 2015 and 75 percent in 2014. There are multiple ways to clear a case, Riley said, including issuing a citation or determining that the theft report was unfounded.

"Most vehicles are recovered," Riley said. "Sometimes they're damaged, and sometimes it takes a while."

Grace Pastoor

Grace Pastoor covers crime, courts and social issues for the Bemidji Pioneer. Contact her at (218) 333-9796 or

(218) 333-9796