Thefts of high-end vehicles are on the rise throughout New Jersey because, thanks to the bad habits or forgetfulness of Garden State residents, it's never been easier to snag one right out of a driveway or from a garage.

Local, county and state officials are imploring residents to keep their car doors locked when the vehicle is unattended. And if the doors are left unlocked, they advise, the car's keys or key fob definitely should not be inside.

"The public needs to do their part, and we can bring this down," said Morris County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Brad Seabury.

In 87% of the stolen vehicle cases in Morris County so far in 2020, the vehicle was left unlocked with the keys or fob left inside. The county's had 640 reports of stolen motor vehicles since the start of 2018.

"The pandemic of COVID-19 has not slowed this down in any way," Seabury said.

From January through September of 2020, a total of 7,131 automobiles were reported stolen statewide, according to statistics compiled by the State Police. That's down 4.4% compared to the same period last year, but there was a 7.5% jump in the number of high-end vehicle thefts (generally defined as less than five years old with a sticker price of $50,000 or more).

The Attorney General's Office in late October announced the launch of a public awareness campaign, "Lock It or Lose It." Its message is now running on billboards, radio and on television stations.

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"Auto theft isn't just for joyriding anymore. It could be a critical first step in the commission of much more serious crimes like murder and robbery," said Attorney General Gurbir Grewal.

While making a steal isn't difficult for thieves — they pull on door handles until one opens up — most thefts appear to be part of an organized effort. There's strong demand elsewhere, including overseas, for high-end vehicle models such as Audi, BMW and Range Rover.

"If possible, keep the exterior of your residence well lit during the nighttime hours," said Lt. Thomas Mantle with the Manalapan Township Police Department. "And do not leave items of value in plain view within your vehicle."

The issue has been more pressing in Manalapan and Monmouth County over the past several months, Mantle said. From January through August of this year, the county's seen 182 high-end vehicle thefts, according to the county prosecutor's office. That number has steadily risen each year — in 2016, just 60 of these vehicles were stolen over the first eight months.

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