NEW JERSEY (PIX11) — Auto thefts are plaguing New Jersey, and state officials are taking measures to combat the problem Gov. Phil Murphy has called an epidemic.

Law enforcement experts say it started during the pandemic when there was a shortage of vehicles. As a result, car thefts are on the rise in many states nationwide. 

In New Jersey, the numbers are alarming. Here are the statistics from the New Jersey Attorney General’s office on the number of cars stolen yearly.

  • 2019: 11,989   
  • 2020: 11,781
  • 2021: 14,425
  • 2022: 15,650

Essex Fells resident Michele Trapasso had her car stolen from her garage last Memorial Day weekend.

“I believe they were watching,” said Trapasso. “The scariest part was that we were sitting right here.”

Earlier in the evening, Trapasso drove into the garage of her home. She got out of the car but left the keyfob in the vehicle. She locked the garage door and went into her house. An hour later, her husband arrived home in his vehicle and locked his car, but when he went to shut the garage door, Trapasso said the door must’ve gone back up.

It’s an honest mistake any homeowner could’ve made. She believes the thieves were lying in wait and seized the opportunity. The family’s Ring camera caught the entire incident on video, two men taking off in her 2021 Range Rover. It takes the pair less than 30 seconds. 

“Someone could’ve had a weapon, a gun if we went out and tried to stop them,” said Trapasso.  “It hasn’t only happened to me. It’s happened to other homes on this street, in this neighborhood and that invasion of privacy to be this close to my kitchen and my daughter and my husband is really scary.”

While many cases are crimes of opportunity, there has also been a disturbing trend, thieves entering homes to look for car keys to get into vehicles. Stolen cars are often used to commit other, often violent crimes or taken to strip them of their parts. Additionally, some vehicles are sent overseas on the black market, a stolen pipeline. The vast majority of vehicles are stolen from suburbs in Essex County, like where the Trapassos live, because of the proximity to shipping ports in Newark and Elizabeth.   

The State Police Auto Theft Task Force was formed to zero in on the problem. Lt. Col. Joseph Brennan is the Investigations Branch Commander.

“There are ways for us to track that vehicle using technology knowing where it is and we can alert other agencies that it’s coming,” said Brennan. “We deploy resources where we think those cars are going to be stolen and where they’re going to end up.”

Brennan says a small number of criminals are responsible for auto thefts in the state.

“They’re looking for specific types of cars and when they see that and an easy mark, they’re going to act on it.”

Trapasso’s vehicle was later discovered in the Bronx, abandoned. Sgotget it back, but it’s still unclear what the thieves may have used the vehicle for.

“About 80% of the cars are recovered, but they’re used in crimes in our inner cities. About 20% are unrecovered,” said Brennan. “Within that 20%, we believe those cars are resold for a profit.”

Brennan said the task force succeeded because of its partnership with the 562 local police departments statewide.

“This year, we’re down 26% where we were this time last year,” said Brennan. “We’re at 2,100 cars stolen. That’s 750 less cars stolen this time last year.”

There are also several bills in the statehouse to combat the issue. Including the Persistent Auto Theft Offender Stat would allow state and local prosecution to seek more serious criminal consequences for repeat offenders.

State officials closely monitor defendants in their pretrial period and have earmarked $10 million of federal funds for license plate recognition technology. Other proposed legislation would make it a crime to possess and distribute special tools to break into vehicles. Gov. Murphy has vowed to sign the bills into law if they reach his desk.

The state’s law enforcement officer, Attorney General Matthew Platkin, said auto thefts affect overall public safety.

“We take the same approach to auto thefts as we do to gun violence,” said Platkin. “I think the best lesson for the thieves out there is there’s no hiding.”

Michele Trapasso is still trying to regain her sense of security in her own home.

“We’ve had to change locks, get keypads on our doors, had to get a whole new security system. It’s scary you think that you live in this little bubble of a town where nothing happens and it’s supposed to be safe,” said Trapasso. “There’s so many times now that I circle around my block just to make sure I shut my garage door again just to make sure it’s shut and to feel safe.”