Professional burglars working in the Westside and Mid-Wilshire areas have targeted more than 50 BMWs in recent months, making away with expensive auto parts but leaving behind cellphones and laptop computers.
Air bags that cost thousands of dollars to replace and high-end headlights are being carefully removed from BMW 3 Series and 5 Series models, according to the Los Angeles Police Department.
Det. Mike Smith, an expert on auto burglaries, said the LAPD's Wilshire Division has seen "close to 40 of these crimes" since April and the West Los Angeles Division has seen 14. "We believe this thief or thieves are getting into these vehicles in record time."
The air bag has replaced the radio, wheel rims and other fittings as auto burglars' favorite item to steal. They are portable, relatively easy to steal and a hot item on the black market. More than 10% of all automobile thefts involve air bags, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit research group funded by insurance companies.
The black market for such safety devices has soared in recent years, with criminals getting hundreds of dollars for an air bag that would cost customers about $1,500 to replace. The National Insurance Crime Bureau estimates at least 50,000 air bags are stolen annually.
"They leave behind valuable stuff that is sitting in the car," Smith said.
The BMW bandits, he said, "have a very unique method for entering the vehicles," and because of their speed have yet to be spotted by passersby, he said. "BMW aren't easy cars to get into."
Smith said detectives first learned of the thefts in April and quickly began tracking similar crimes.
Local BMW enthusiasts were surprised to learn of the rash of crime targeting their rides.
"This is the first time I have heard about this and there hasn't been any discussion about it as far as I know," said Delight Lucas, president of Los Angeles chapter of the BMW Car Club of America. Members of the club tend to be especially protective of their vehicles, she said, so that may explain why they have not fallen victim to the crime spree.
Smith said the burglars are skilled and know how to access the air bags in minutes without damaging them. The crimes have occurred at night but the pattern has been mostly random.
Many of the crimes, however, occurred in the area bound by Waring Avenue, La Cienega Boulevard, Sixth Street and Hayworth Avenue.
Theft from vehicles is down about 5% across the city this year, but in the Wilshire Division that number is up 8% compared with 2008. In the West L.A. Division auto thefts are up 3%.
Smith said anyone with information about the burglaries can contact the Wilshire station at (213) 473-0476.