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Tow truck driver used truck to steal cars for scrap, police say

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A Minneapolis tow truck driver in the last four months has been scooping cars off the street and hauling them away.

Nothing odd about that, it might seem.

But these were not cars he was rescuing for service on behalf of owners – he was stealing them, police say.

James Chester Jennings, 50, has been charged with two felony counts, theft and theft of a motor vehicle, WCCO reports.

Police suspect he may have stolen as many as 143 cars and had them scrapped at a metro-area recycler for cash, the station reports. Police eventually were led to suspect Jennings after a surveillance camera captured two car thieves using a flat-bed tow truck to swipe a Ford pickup truck at a West St. Paul Walmart store, WCCO reports. The other suspect has cooperated with police.

In the world of car thefts, this is not a novel approach. In Atlanta last winter, a 34-year-old man used a tow truck to steal cars that had been abandoned during a rare ice storm, WSB-TV Atlanta reported.

Just this month, a tow truck operator in the Portland, Oregon, area was charged, accused of stealing cars and selling them to a car-crushing business, KPTV in Oregon reports. He's one of 10 suspected of similar activity there.

Police in other incidents have said the scrap dealers can be part of the problem. That was the case in Milwaukee, where police in the last two years have noticed more tow truck drivers stealing cars across the city and scrapping them for cash, WDJT in Milwaukee reported.

At least one scrap dealer has been charged for operating without a license, the station reported.

About 23 cars are stolen every day in Minnesota, roughly one per hour, the state Department of Commerce has reported. But the total number of thefts has steadily decreased in recent years – from more than 18,000 in 2005 to about 8,000 in 2010, the department reported.

Here's a few car theft prevention tips from insurer GEICO, including: On an incline, leave your car in park or in gear with the wheels turned toward the curb or some other obstruction. This makes it harder for thieves to tow your vehicle.

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