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Minneapolis startup turns to tech to fight car thieves

Fed up with the growing number of carjackings and stolen vehicles in the Twin Cities, a south Minneapolis startup is fighting back.

Called TC Nighthawks, the company sells small GPS-equipped beacons for cars so they can be located if they are reported stolen. Using an app, the beacon can transmit information within minutes to police, who can follow through computers in real time to track the stolen vehicle and recover it.

“We are concerned about our streets,” said Lacey Gauthier, who started the business after hearing from residents of Longfellow, Nokomis and Powderhorn neighborhoods. “We want our neighborhoods to be like they were when we were growing up.”

The first batch of GPS beacons sold on the TC Nighthawks site were due to be delivered to customers on Friday. The company had ordered 200 devices and hoped to sell them all within six months, but “they are selling faster than we thought,” Gauthier said.

John Bean of Eagan will be among the first to get a tag. He had a classic 1955 Chevy stolen from his workplace last summer, and the vehicle was not found. He heard about TC Nighthawks and decided to give it a try.

“It’s kind of like cheap insurance,” Bean said. “They can trace it right away. With an active ID tag, you can go find it. Sounds pretty cool. Car theft is on the rise. Hope that deters them.”

TC Nighthawks next plans to open an outlet at a tobacco store at 46th Street and Hiawatha Avenue, with flashy ads featuring local boxer Floyd Hodges on social media platforms. Gauthier has also been in touch with ABC to possibly feature his product on the “Shark Tank” reality show.

She started the project when her 16-year-old daughter, Tanisha Robinson, asked if placing small tags on cars could curb the epidemic of auto theft. There were 1,042 such reports in the first 2 12 month of 2022 in Minneapolis, including 117 carjackings. The trend has continued this year, with 1,906 motor vehicle thefts as of Wednesday, including 63 carjackings, according to city data posted online.

Gauthier, a former crisis counselor and bar owner, assembled a team of tech experts, security specialists and administrators from the Minneapolis Scanner Facebook page to launch TC Nighthawks. Company motto: “We’ll keep one eye open…so you can close both.”

The GPS tag is hidden in the vehicle, so thieves are unlikely to know they are being tracked, Gauthier said. Customers pay $199 for an annual subscription; the price will increase to $259 on April 1.

If a customer’s car is stolen, they report it to the police, get a case number, and immediately call TC Nighthawks. With an in-house developed app, a Nighthawks dispatcher sends an email to the agent assigned to the case that includes a link to a screenshot of the stolen car’s location.

Dispatchers can help officers focus on a vehicle and expedite stopping and recovering the vehicle.

To augment the live feed, TC Nighthawks may also launch a drone with a camera to potentially capture the faces of suspects and provide “bird’s eye” video to police, drone operations manager Vaughn Clark said.

As part of the service, Nighthawks has a team of towing companies that will recover stolen cars and store them for 24 hours, giving owners time to recover them.

It was a big selling point for North Minneapolis’ Tim Sundquist, who bought a Nighthawks tag after his wife saw them advertised on Facebook.

“It appealed to me,” he said. “They have a team of their own men trying to get the vehicles back and not waiting for the police to get them.”

Sundquist did not have a car stolen, but his wallet was taken from his car when he was only 15 feet away. Installing the tag, he said, is a proactive move.

“I see how close the potential is,” he said. “I would like something to follow the car if I lose it.”

Gauthier said the immediate goal was to alert law enforcement in the metro area to the technology and integrate them. But she said efforts to help victims who have had their vehicles stolen or hijacked will not stop there. The company plans to create social media pages to post information about all stolen cars, including those not covered by one of its labels.

TC Nighthawks members also plan to attend court hearings for those arrested for vehicle theft or carjacking. Gauthier said many abusers are teenagers and young adults. “We need judges to understand the impact” on victims, she said.

TC Nighthawks caught the eye of Luther Ranheim, who is running for Minneapolis City Council’s 12th seat, covering many of the city’s southeast neighborhoods where cars have been stolen.

“They’re private citizens showing up to solve a problem and relieve the police,” Ranheim said. “I love creativity. They saw a problem and said, ‘We’re going to do something about it.’ “

startribune Gt Itly

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