Richmond County sheriff's Sgt. Robbie Silas was investigating the carjacking Monday afternoon of a Pontiac Grand Am from a couple at Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co. on Bobby Jones Expressway. The thieves took the car at gunpoint and used it to ram an ATM on Augusta West Parkway in an attempt to steal cash.
About an hour earlier, Silas had been busy with the theft of a car from Russell Street that thieves drove to Rent-A-Center on Wrightsboro Road.
A few months ago, a group of teens was using stolen cars to drive around and steal even nicer vehicles, Silas said.
Statistics from the National Insurance Crime Bureau show car thefts are happening more frequently across the six-county Augusta area.
On the bureau's annual ranking of the top 50 car-theft hot spots, the Augusta area -- which includes Aiken, Burke, Columbia, Edgefield, McDuffie and Richmond counties -- ranked 26th last year. In 2008, the area wasn't even in the top 50.
Using data from law enforcement agencies, the report ranks metropolitan statistical areas, or MSAs, by the rate of thefts per 100,000 people. Though the Augusta MSA had only 130 more reported car thefts last year, the area jumped nearly 30 places as the rate of thefts rose to 433.27 per 100,000 people.
However, as the area as a whole sees more thefts, Richmond County is witnessing fewer thefts, according to statistics from the sheriff's office. They show a year-to-year decrease in car thefts and a drop in the per capita rate of thefts.
Augusta population data for 2009 was not available, but a calculation by the National Insurance Crime Bureau of the per-capita car theft rate for 2008-09 using 2008 population data shows the number down by about 33 points.
Sheriff's Capt. Scott Peebles said it's difficult for thieves to get parts off a vehicle, so it can be much easier to simply use them in other criminal activity.
"Most cars are not stolen for financial gain," he said. "Most are stolen to be used in the commission of other crimes or for joyriding."
Sheriff's Lt. Tony Walden, who supervises the property crime division, said the trend comes and goes.
"We've seen these types of actions before," he said. "It doesn't happen often, but then at the same time it's not a new trend."
Walden cited his department's statistics through April, which show thefts were about same as last year -- 550 in 2009 and 546 in 2010.
Frank Scafidi, a spokesman for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, the group that released the ranking, emphasized that the report is a population-based review, so some areas rank higher than those with more thefts.
Cities such as Los Angeles aren't even in the top 50 because their massive population dilutes the number of thefts, even though it is widely known as one of the busiest areas in the country for vehicle thefts.
"They lose more cars in a halftime in a Lakers game in Los Angeles than Modesto or Laredo lose in a year," Scafidi said, citing the list's first- and second-ranked cities. "LA never appears because they have 5 (million) or 6 million people to spread those thefts around."
Staff Writer Tom Corwin contributed to this article.