COVINGTON - The Newton County Sheriff's Office has seen a surge in burglaries and thefts in the past two weeks, predominantly thefts of copper wire and catalytic converters.
Investigator Sharron Stewart said that on her desk alone were 15 cases of catalytic converter thefts, not to mention the thefts of air conditioning units and household appliances that have occurred recently.
"They're looking for copper and catalytic converters. There's been a rash of air conditioner thefts on the south side, and the catalytic converter thefts have occurred all over the county. The city has a lot of cases, too," she said.
One auto dealership on Salem Road reported 11 catalytic converter thefts this week.
She said it was too early to tell if the upswing in these types of thefts was due to economic woes or if it was simply drug-related, but she said at least a portion of the thefts was due to the slump in the housing market.
"There's a lot of vacant houses. Some of the houses that were hit this week were on a street where there are 15 to 20 houses with nobody living there," she said.
Stewart was referring to a new subdivision where nine air conditioning units were taken from vacant houses, along with a few kitchen appliances. And to add insult to injury, the thieves weren't neat, tracking mud all over the new carpet. The builder estimated at least $200 in damage to the carpet of each home.
Stewart said she and other NCSO investigators are working diligently to catch the culprits of these thefts, but admitted the only way to really put a stop to it is for neighbors to begin looking out for their neighbors.
"It's not that people are not observant, but they don't want to get involved like they used to," she said. "They're just more hesitant to help us. We need to get back to working together as a society."
She said getting to know neighbors and becoming familiar with vehicles and those who come and go at their house is something that people need to do in order to look after each other.
"Nobody wants to get involved unless it happens to them," she said.
Stewart said she'd like to see the public offering its eyes and ears to law enforcement by calling and reporting suspicious activity.
"If we could count more on others, especially if they witnessed something, it would make a difference," she said. "To me, if you see something and don't report it, it's just as bad as if you're involved."
Sheriff Joe Nichols admitted that burglaries and thefts had a low clearance rate.
"One of the problems with a lot of these burglaries is that they're done by out-of-the-county perpetrators. They come in, hit a house and then take the merchandise back to the greater Atlanta area," he said. "That makes it very difficult to trace."
He cautioned homeowners to make their homes less inviting to burglars.
"It's a lot easier to prevent a burglary than for us to solve it after it occurs," he said.
He suggested that homeowners try to think like a burglar by walking around their own home and thinking of the easiest way to get in.
"One of the problems is that they're building these big, beautiful, half-million-dollar homes and putting $10.95 locks on the doors," he said, cautioning that it's worth the investment to get double deadbolt locks.
Also, he said too many new homes have lightweight doors.
"I can put my wrist through one without bruising my fist," he said.
He said if a burglar can't knock a door down and has to make entry through a window, he's less likely to try to drag a 35-inch TV through it on the way out.
Don't leave a key outside. "You'd be surprised how many people hide a key for the kids or for the neighbor to feed the cat, and they're almost always over the door sill, under a rock or in a planter," he said.
And this time of the year, there are often open invitations to burglars.
"People open their windows and they may close them, but they don't take the trouble to lock them," he said. "And don't leave your lawn mower sitting out under the carport."
He said exterior lights in daytime is a signal that nobody is home, as are newspapers in the driveway and mail out in the mailbox.
He cautioned that burglars are not just looking for electronics and cash, these days, but they're often looking for information. Keep bills, credit cards and bank statements put away, not lying out on the kitchen counter. And while you're at it, put them in a secure place, he said. "When they can get numerical information, they leave your house with something of a whole lot more value than anything they can carry out."
And, should a resident be burglarized, Nichols said practically the only hope they have of having the item recovered is if they have kept a record of serial numbers or have marked the item.
"Chances of recovering an item with a serial number are much better; without it, the chances are slim," he said, adding that most of our valuables are not unique, so it is difficult to prove who the lawn mower belongs to or who bought the TV after the fact.
Stewart said motion detector lighting is one of the most inexpensive ways to protect property.
"They may scare somebody off," she said, adding that for a business, investment in video surveillance may be costly up front, but in the long run could make a big difference.
Barbara Knowles can be reached at email@example.com.