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How to protect yourself from car thieves this holiday season

With Black Friday right around the corner, police and security experts warn shoppers not to make themselves easy targets for thieves. One of the biggest misconceptions is that crowded parking lots prevent car break-ins.

“It was so fast,” said Carolyn Wattigny.

Wattigny thought she was being careful while shopping with her sister in the Galleria area last Christmas. Their truck was loaded with gifts, but they needed to make one stop before heading home.

“My sister is like, 'well, I need some gift wrap and I want to bring this to get framed,' and I said, 'well, right here,'” said Wattigny.

Wattigny said she found a parking spot right in front the store. She also said the lot was crowded with shoppers and the store had a large plate glass window that gave her a clear view of her truck while she was in the store.

“Oh, no one is going to stop and rob us in front of this well-lit store,” Wattigny remembered thinking at the time.

Unfortunately that assumption proved wrong. A thief broke the window of her truck and made off with a package she had hidden underneath the seat.

“Bah-humbug,” said Wattigny.

Wattigny said a woman parked next to her barely noticed anything happened.

“She said, ‘well, I saw somebody kind of suspiciously walking,' but in one second it was done,” said Wattigny.

Wattigny said security cameras were no help either.

“You couldn't see anything. They were like hoodie and gloves, five seconds,” said Wattigny.

Paul Grant runs TRS, a company that safeguards vehicles against thieves and repairs theft related damage. Grant said many people get a false sense of security in crowded parking lots.

“They're thinking there's a bunch of people walking around, you know, 'hey, nobody is going to come and steal something,'” said Grant.

To further highlight the point of how quickly thieves can break into cars, he helped KPRC with a demonstration.

We set-up hidden cameras inside two vehicles owned by Grant's company. We then placed one car in a crowded Westside parking lot and loaded it with packages and bags.

Grant then walked up to the car and shattered the passenger side window with a single push of a screwdriver. Grant then grabbed the bags and walked back to our waiting SUV. The entire faux crime took 20 seconds. As for all the people in the parking lot; only one noticed what happened.

“I didn't really know what to think, that was kind of crazy,” the woman said.

Grant said thieves move too quickly for many people to react in time to call for security or police.

“I was already in and out of the car before she could get her phone up to dial anybody,” said Grant.

After this test, we placed a pick-up truck in a crowded Galleria area parking lot. Grant again saunters up and uses a screwdriver to pop the door lock. He then uses a screwdriver and vice grips to break the steering column and start the truck. This demonstration took 45 seconds and no one in the parking noticed anything out of the ordinary.

“What are the main things a thief looks for when they go to a parking lot like this?” asked KPRC’s Robert Arnold.

“I think opportunity is the one thing a thief is going to look for,” said Grant.

Grant said this is why shoppers should never leave anything in their car while shopping.

“Sunglasses or a five dollar bill, they’ll go for it,” said Grant.   

Grant said either take your packages home, carry bags with you or lock everything in the trunk. While it won’t stop a thief, Grant said you should try to park in crowded, well-lit areas because remote spots only make you more of a target.

Grant also said make sure no one follows you after leaving a store. Remember Wattigny?

“Not anybody could have just taken that bag, known exactly where it was without following us,” said Wattigny.

Grant also recommends never leaving anything in your car that has your home address. A thief can use that information to burglarize your house while you’re out shopping. Grant said this is the same reason people should never program their home address into a GPS device left in their vehicle.