It happens frequently to even the best of us: We are leaving the house in a hurry — and running late, of course — thinking about the long to-do list of the day and wishing that the traffic will magically disappear when, just as we start on the car — oh, no! — we remember that we forgot something at home.
And that’s when we think, “if I run very fast back to the house, who will have a chance to steal what’s in my car?”
Or, we arrived home after a long and stressful day at work and after spending several minutes — or even more than an hour — stuck inside our vehicles along South Florida highways, and finally in the comfort of our home, when we try to remember, “did I close the car?” That is usually followed by the phrase “Eh! I’m sure I did, and who is going to steal it, anyway?”
Here is the answer: while motor vehicle thefts are not as common in South Florida, car burglaries are.
In 2017, burglars broke into 10,034 cars in Miami-Dade County and stole something of value. In 2016, there were 10,377 car burglaries and in 2015, 9,278.
The thing is car burglaries are an “easy” crime. According to Doral Police, two out of three car burglaries happened because the automobile was left open at the time of the crime, creating the perfect opportunity for unscrupulous people. Due to a tendency to “forget” locking doors, now thieves do not even have to break the car window to gain access.
This has been evident in surveillance videos released by several police departments during the last year, which shows criminals clearly trying doors until one opens without resistance. They have stolen from multiple cars in entire neighborhoods in just one night.
To prevent these crimes, Miami-Dade Police has implemented an original measure. Every evening at 9 p.m., the agents post reminders for residents on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
“Do your part to help prevent criminal activity. Remove all your valuables from inside your car. Lock your car/house windows and doors. Turn on your exterior house lights. GO!,” said one message shared in January.
This prevention strategy, which began in last July, usually has similar messages and are accompanied by pictures of masked thieves and the hashtag #9PMRoutine.
Miami-Dade Police spokesman Argemis Colomé told el Nuevo Herald that this system seeks to help South Florida residents get into the habit of locking the doors of their vehicles and homes, and not exposing their valuables with the purpose of minimizing these crimes and preventing future victims.
“Unfortunately, at night some people do go around looking for cars that are left open or valuables inside the cars,” he said.
But why do we forget something as simple as locking the doors?
There’s not a simple answer, especially when we consider that, according to the U.S. Census, more than half of the population of Miami-Dade was born abroad and many come from countries with high levels of crime where nobody would leave a unattended handbag, a neglected object or an open door.
Anthony Zanesco, an expert in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Miami, believes that these “oversights” could be due to a phenomenon called “optimistic bias” that makes people always expect positive results for themselves, because they sincerely believe that “my car is not going to get stolen.”
“Something about human thinking makes us tend to think that only good stuff happens to us and bad stuff happens to other people,” explained Zanesco, who studies how people pay attention and how they can improve their attention through mindfulness and meditation practices.
The optimistic bias could also be the reason why foreigners lose the “paranoia of insecurity” when they emigrate to the United States.
Zanesco, who has a doctorate in psychology, believes that by feeling more secure in this country, individuals may come to believe that the “few” crimes that occurred in the cities will not affect them or simply think, “that happened in the country I came from, but it doesn’t happen here.”
The second possible explanation of why people forget to lock their cars may be a matter of habit.
“We are creatures of habits but if we don’t get into the habit of doing certain things, we forget to do it, even if it is something as simple as closing their doors,” said Raimundo Socorro, dean of Criminal Justice program at the Miami Dade College and a retired Miami police officer with 26 years of experience.
If perhaps you cannot understand how a habit can have so much impact, Socorro has an answer: “Think about it this way, how many times you (...) forget where you put your keys because you don’t put them in the same place all the time?”
The expert in cognitive neuroscience at UM agrees with Socorro, but adds that people tend to forget more those small daily activities when we are not paying attention or are in a hurry.
In the opinion of the retired officer, Miami-Dade Police are acting smart by using a different tactic to remind people to lock their cars and thus create the habit.
He recalled that in the city of Miami they implemented the program “Park Smart” a few years ago in downtown, where they worked with different departments to modify the codes or regulations of the parking lots in the city to include more lighting and security. They also distributed pamphlets with preventive information.
This indicates that car burglaries are nothing new, but instead of buying anti-theft devices, you can implement an easy and free solution: lock your car at 9 o’clock at night or at the time you get home.
Follow Johanna A. Álvarez on Twitter: @jalvarez8.