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Some time ago, a man wearing jeans, cowboy boots and a hoodie drove a dirty Ford Explorer into a carwash in Fort Worth, Texas. As soon as the car came back clean, he got it filthy again, and drove to the next carwash. He did this with every single full-service carwash in town.
The man wasn't suffering from a strange mental disorder; Patrick Kinkade was a criminologist conducting an experiment.
Kinkade left a large amount of loose change inside the car each time he dropped it off. When he got the car back, he counted the money still inside to see if any of it had been stolen.
He found, surprisingly, that money was taken from his car about a third of the time. The car was admittedly a fat target because Kinkade left lots of loose change inside it, but if the theft rate in Fort Worth is anything like the theft rate nationwide, it's possible that millions of dollars are being stolen from cars each year during car washes.
In a new paper titled "Getting Hosed," Kinkade and fellow researchers Ronald Burns and Michael Bachmann at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth found that there were certain factors that increased the risk of theft.
At some carwashes, Kinkade dropped off the car with a copy of Maxim magazine inside it — the magazine contains plenty of suggestive pictures of semi-clad women. Underneath a seat, Kinkade also left crushed beer cans.
The idea, he said in an interview, was to suggest the driver of the car was somehow "deviant." Kinkade said he and his colleagues wanted to explore the possibility that when people's behavior marks them as being somehow out of the mainstream, they are more likely to become victims of crime.
Kinkade emphasized he was not using the term "deviant" pejoratively, but as a technical term that distinguishes between mainstream and nonmainstream behavior. Lots of people view suggestive and explicit pictures in magazines, but they tend to do it in private.
"The experimental condition created the perception that the driver of this particular vehicle was perhaps a deviant," he said. "And what we did in order to trigger that perception was place a men's magazine on the front seat to suggest some sort of interest in sexuality and a couple crushed beer cans underneath the seat to suggest that the person probably had been drinking and driving."
Kinkade found that the cash was twice as likely to be stolen from when the magazine and beer cans were present. He also found that larger amounts of money were taken from the car, compared with when the magazine and beer cans were absent.
Kinkade said he didn't go back to the carwashes to confront the thieves, since the research experiment wasn't meant to be a sting operation.
The researchers stressed they weren't suggesting that people who become victims of crime somehow bring it upon themselves: Reading a certain magazine doesn't mean people deserve to have their cars stolen from. But the researchers speculated that criminals may prey on people who seem like they are out of the mainstream.
"You may be targeted because you can be blamed for your own victimization," Kinkade said. "The criminal may say, 'Well, I'm a criminal and I'm doing criminal acts against people, but that person over there is also a criminal and so he deserves it.'"