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High-tech units track stolen cars Satellite location devices to help drivers find their way also find their cars

Joseph Monkelbaan thought his mother's 2004 Chevrolet Suburban was gone after two men stole the SUV at gunpoint from the Lancaster teen.

But hours after the carjacking on Buffalo's East Side Nov. 25, a high-tech tracking system led police to the SUV's precise location in Niagara Falls.

Officers recovered the SUV and arrested three men, and Monkelbaan couldn't be happier. "I don't think we would have had it back," he said, if not for the onboard security system. "So thank God for OnStar."

OnStar is the brand name for one of several high-tech systems that allow police agencies and vehicle owners to locate stolen cars and trucks -- sometimes with the thieves still inside.

OnStar is used to find hundreds of stolen vehicles each month, while competitor LoJack has found 98,000 vehicles over the past two decades, the companies report. Police in this area say they have had a handful of such cases in recent years.

The systems -- which rely on radio waves or global-positioning satellites to find the vehicles -- are part of a high-tech trend in public safety.

Global positioning system, or GPS, devices are popping up in police cars, personal vehicles and cell phones. New telecommunications systems can determine exactly from where someone on a cell phone is calling.

And surveillance cameras are showing up in police cars, at traffic intersections and in other public spaces.

"This [new technology] is just fantastic," said Niagara County Sheriff Thomas A. Beilein.

But privacy experts caution that the technology can reveal too much personal information about people and their movements. They argue that better security safeguards are needed.

"That lends itself to abuse. People don't realize how hard it is to guard against that and as a result how vulnerable they might be," said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit group in San Francisco that seeks to protect the public's digital rights.

This tracking technology already has been put to good use in recovering stolen cars across North America, including a few local examples.

In February 2004, two armed men robbed a Walden Galleria employee of cash and her car. The 2003 Buick was recovered in Greece, outside Rochester, the next morning after OnStar traced the vehicle.

Also, this past January, Niagara County sheriff's deputies used OnStar to trace a 2005 Chevy Trailblazer stolen from a Pendleton driveway to a Grand Island gas station.

OnStar relies on GPS technology. A tracker can learn the position of a GPS receiver -- in a car, a phone or handheld device -- by measuring its distance from several satellites.

GPS can be used to locate automobiles, provide directions or track where people have gone. But it is not used just for automobiles.

A number of new cell phones, for example, have built-in GPS technology that allows parents to look at an electronic map and get the location of a child carrying that phone. GPS is also used in navigating boats, and a course in such, called piloting, is offered by Power Squadron units in the area.

OnStar is available only in General Motors cars and trucks.

About 4.5 million subscribers use OnStar, which is advertised as providing help with driving directions, vehicle diagnostics and even remote unlocking of car doors.

But OnStar owners and police are increasingly using the service to help locate stolen vehicles -- an average of 500 found each month, the company reported.

It's not perfect, because sometimes OnStar can't pick up the signal right away and thieves can see the GPS unit in the vehicle and disable it.

But OnStar has been used to find stolen vehicles and missing people, and to notify the Erie County Sheriff's Office of accidents, Lt. Ron Kenyon said.

The sheriff's office has even received calls of domestic disputes that were reported to OnStar after couples began to argue in their GM cars, he said.

On Nov. 25, Joseph Monkelbaan said he was driving through Buffalo's East Side on his way to visit his grandmother when he got lost on Beck Street, near the Broadway Market.

He said he pulled over to use the SUV's car phone when two men came up on either side of the vehicle. Joseph said he was forced out at gunpoint and robbed of wallet and keys before the men drove off in the SUV.

"At that point, I was really scared and I had to think real fast. So I ran over to the Broadway Market," Joseph said.

He called 911 and his parents called OnStar, which tracked the car to Niagara Falls and gave police there time to set up a cordon of four patrol cars around the SUV.

"This vehicle was being reported [by police as stolen] the same time OnStar was calling us. Buffalo PD hadn't even filed the paperwork," said Niagara Falls Police Officer Shawn Bosi. Police arrested three men.

OnStar is just one of several GPS systems in use today.

A company called www.MyGPSProtection.com sells a device called Millennium Plus that offers real-time tracking of a vehicle, including whether it's being driven over a certain speed or outside of a specific area.

The Niagara County Sheriff's Office is one of many police agencies nationwide taking advantage of this new technology.

With a new communication system in place in February, the office will be able to track precisely from where a cell phone call to 911 was made. Currently, the county's system can only locate the cell tower nearest to the call.

Also, the Niagara County Sheriff's Office is installing GPS devices in its patrol vehicles. "We won't have to poll cars to see who's the closest car. The dispatcher will be able to see immediately who is the closest car," Beilein said.

The Erie County Sheriff's Office has installed GPS units in several patrol cars and seeks funding for more, Sgt. Thomas Daugherty said.

Buffalo patrol cars do not have GPS technology at this time, said Chief of Detectives Dennis J. Richards.

e-mail: swatson@buffnews.com

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