WMBF Investigates: Technology helping in fight against wheel thieves

HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - The wheels on your vehicle are a hot commodity and thieves are going after them at area car dealerships too.

But some are fighting back. This is a closer look at the technology some hope can help.

Surveillance cameras were rolling while thieves rolled thousands of dollars' worth of wheels off an SUV. This hit happened at Little River's Bell & Bell Buick GMC in July, but these wheels are hardly typical.

"They took the wrong set that night, but any wheels that are taken now off of our lot are traceable, are trackable, yes," said Harold Floyd, service manager at Bell & Bell Buick.

Floyd had hope in the form of a new identity system of sorts he'd just installed on the wheels. You need a special light to see it and the creators say neither paint nor filing can remove it.

"Our product allows a dealer to embed an identification number into the painted component part. (We can) can even do car doors, hood. The idea of the product is that it's covert from the standpoint that a consumer can't see it," said Brad Deveran, director at Pass Key Premium Products.

WMBF News caught up with Deveran by FaceTime.  He sells the product Bell & Bell installed and says if the thieves can't see the ID but police can, there's a better chance for authorities and owners to get their wheels back.

According to Deveran, the company stands by its technology, even offering cash payouts to those who've not recovered their stolen wheels.

"So we do have a decent amount of claims we are paying out. Roughly, if I had to guess, this month we paid out about $20,000 in claims to consumers," said Deveran.

It turns out that system worked for Bell & Bell just a few days after the theft.

"By Saturday at lunchtime, we had already received a call from the authorities that they had located our product," Floyd said. "So we had already given the specific code that we had put on those rims on that car with that VIN number."

Horry County police were able to find and identify the wheels, but so far there have been no arrests.

"They pop them up on jacks, they put them on blocks and they take the wheels," said Tom Raschiatore, general manager of Hyatt Buick GMC.

He said thieves got away with more than $40,000 worth of wheels from eight vehicles in May after stealing $12,000 worth in February.  WMBF News learned his dealership is among several others hit in the past few months, according to police reports, which include Beach Ford and Jud Kuhn Chevrolet.

"People are watching. They know there's somebody out there that knows and we need your help," said Raschiatore.

To combat the crime, Raschiatore said he's not yet sure about the benefits of a concealed etching system.

"I mean, if it's an etching program, if it's pawned off somewhere in the country, they're going to sell the wheel anyhow," he said.

Raschiatore's team is still researching security options. He added these thefts have become an epidemic in Horry County and in the Pee Dee.

As it turns out, thieves hit Bell & Bell again.

"We've had it happen long ago in the past and several times before, but it's never been this quick and never been this much at one time. This is probably the biggest we've ever had happen to us," said Will Bell, Buick sales manager at Bell & Bell.

The second hit came in August, just a month after the first strike this summer. Surveillance video shows at least two people taking wheels off of vehicles. It came out to almost $30,000 worth, before damages.

These thieves appear to take their time, spending to four hours even to complete the job.

Their getaway vehicle was a van stolen from Four Seasons Flooring in Myrtle Beach. The van was later recovered in North Carolina, but this time, not the wheels. The family business owners are hoping their tracking technology may work a second time.

"I want to know who done it. It ain't so much we want our wheels back obviously, but it's more we want somebody brought to justice for it because we want the right thing done," said Bell.

For a closer look at the one of the products used to retrieve wheels, click here. For other steps you can take to protect your vehicle, click here.

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