Are recent car break-ins related to new social norms of Covid-19? WTAJ Investigates

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (WTAJ)–Police in the State College are are reporting a slight uptick in car break-ins. WTAJ investigated to see if these car thefts are connected to changes in social habits (routines) due to Covid-19.

State College Police told WTAJ that with less people “out and about”, there’s less of a chance that someone will see a crime, even in broad daylight.

Police also said parking lots for outdoor trails are “hot-spots” for criminals, since many hikers leave their belongings in their car.

“Places where people go for a hike, they generally leave their valuables behind in the vehicle. That’s where we’ve seen an increase in car thefts,” Patton Township Police Chief, Tyler Jolley said.

Saturday, State College resident Madalyn Meyers and her husband parked their car at Millbrook Marsh in State College to go on a hike.

“We’ve been taking long walks every single day, just trying to get some fresh air,” she said.

Hiking trails are growing in popularity because they’re one of few places people can still go, while avoiding close contact with others. As mentioned, the trails aren’t just popular with hikers, but thieves as well.

“When we had come back, we noticed that our window had been smashed,” Meyers said.

Her purse was stolen. Inside the purse were Meyers’ bank cards, I.D. and other personal items.

“These people had my house keys and address, so the first thing I did is change my locks and cancel all my cards,” Meyers said.

Her car was one-of-three broken-into at Millbrook Marsh Saturday. Police report that there were also two car break-ins at the parking lot near Penn State’s arboretum, and one at Patton Woods.

All these thefts are believed to be done by the two individuals pictured below.. (Photo gathered by Patton Township Police).

Police say they believe these two individuals stole from cars in others parts of PA, along with Maryland and West Virginia. Chief Jolley said Patton Township P.D. is attempting to get facial recognition of the suspects.

Anyone with information is asked to contact both Patton Township Police.

“They’re opportunistic. If they see something they’re interested in, they may take that extra step to break a window,” Chief Jolley said.

He gave some tips to stop car owners from having items stolen.

“Make sure you don’t have valuables in plain view. Get those hidden. Put them in the trunk, under a blanket, anywhere they’re not seen,” he said.

Meyers said she’s no longer leaving any valuables in her car.

“I will absolutely never leave my purse in the car again. No matter how far I’m walking, no matter how heavy it is… I will always have it with me. Be extra cautious during this time because I don’t want this to happen to anybody else,” she said.

Residual impact of the thefts

Meyers believes the thieves are looking to commit identity fraud, using coronavirus concerns as a cover-up.

“They can easily hide behind masks now and nobody’s thinking that’s weird…. so nobody can identify them,” she said.

Meyers says the thieves tried to withdrawal money from her bank account. She says after speaking with the bank teller, the teller reported they were wearing masks throughout the attempted transaction.

Meyers says the teller blocked the transaction, but gave her I.D. back to the thieves.

She is now calling for the bank to change their policy… to make customers take off their masks before completing a transaction.

“They need to fix it. They need to protect their customers,” Meyers said.

She added: “There’s usually regulations in place where they don’t allow people to conceal their faces when they take out money. But, because of the pandemic, they’re allowing people to go through the drive-thru with masks on.”

WTAJ reached out to more than 10 banks located in and around Central PA to gather their policies on face masks. They are listed below:

  • Altoona First Savings Bank: Allowing customers to wear a mask however, a teller can ask that the mask be removed. If a teller is not comfortable in a situation, they reserve the right to refuse a transaction.
  • Juniata Valley Bank: Allowing customers to wear a mask. A teller has the go-ahead to refuse any transaction they’re uncomfortable completing.
  • Wells Fargo: All customers are allowed to wear masks. The bank said they have other methods of validating a person’s I.D.
  • PNC Bank: Allowing customers to wear a mask, however, if a teller cannot identify the customer (compared to their I.D.) they can request (not require) the mask be removed. A teller reserves the right to refuse any transaction.
  • PSECU: Requiring customers take-off their masks for I.D. checks before any transaction.

All other banks with branches in Central PA did not respond to WTAJ’s request to learn their mask policy.

Final thoughts from Meyers:

She told WTAJ: “All I want is my I.D. I hate having someone trying to be me. I know that my driver’s license number might be out there after all this, but just knowing that I can have that card back, and that no one else can hand that to somebody else would really be a big relief.”

WTAJ: “What word would you use to describe the thieves?”

Meyers: “Cowardly. They have this opportunity to hide and so they’re just taking advantage of it. They’re only caring about themselves. Everyone is worried. Just about everyone is losing money. Everyone is affected. If these people are affected and they think that they deserve what they steal, that’s just not the case because we all need help. We should be banning together instead of tearing each other apart.”

Other impacts of masks

Chief Jolley told WTAJ that the masks may also impact a police force’s ability to identify someone.

“Identifying a suspect could be compromised by them wearing a mask, under the guise of the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said.

Chief Jolley added: “In a pandemic like this, we’re not necessarily going to tell people they can’t wear a mask in public. But it does make our job more difficult for I.D. purposes.”

He said it’s a tough balancing act in looking to keep everyone safe from Covid-19, but also other crimes.

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