An ‘Army’ of Volunteer Sleuths Are Out Hunting for Your Stolen Car

The hunt for missing vehicles has become a second job for Mr. Crawford, who sells trucks for a living and has a deep familiarity with vehicle brands and styles from years in auto sales.

On a recent day off, Mr. Crawford was at his computer by 7 a.m., downing coffee as he reviewed emails and Facebook messages, using an online database of vehicle history reports to check vehicle identification numbers that users had shared of vehicles that seemed out of place — some with torn-out interiors, damaged ignitions or that were otherwise seemingly abandoned.

Later in the morning, Mr. Crawford got in his red pickup, which was leaking coolant from some deferred maintenance and sporting scratch marks down the side from a vehicle recovery mission that had taken him deep into the woods. He rolled down his windows, tuning in to the happenings around him and scouring side streets.

At one point, he pulled behind a Toyota SUV that was emitting an unusual buzzing noise.

“The anthem of Portland: no catalytic converter,” he said, sipping a can of Red Bull.

Minutes later, Mr. Crawford pulled up at the scene of a vehicle in northeast Portland that had been reported by neighbors, a car with no plates and a partially gutted interior. He checked the VIN, found it had recently been reported as stolen and notified the police.

He spent the rest of the day roaming through neighborhoods, capturing videos of cars that seemed out of place so he could check the license plates later. Many stolen cars that can still be recovered end up resurfacing in industrial neighborhoods, at auto supply stores, in parks or shopping centers, he said.

Homeless encampments are also a common spot, Mr. Crawford said as he cruised past one of them, taking care not to bother residents. He said some homeless neighbors have joined the group to help find cars. At the encampments, he overlooks any other minor misdeeds he may encounter.

“My only interest is stolen vehicles,” he said. “They can do whatever they want. Just don’t bother me. And don’t drive stolen cars.”

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