When the Salt Lake Police Department's auto theft unit recently took over cases of valuables stolen from vehicles, Sgt. Chuck Cockayne learned another strong tradition of the holiday season.

The head of the larceny unit "told me to stand by because it gets unbelievable," Cockayne said of vehicle theft. Stealing an auto or the valuables inside of it is peaking this time of year."We have a fairly high incidence of car prowls throughout the year, but especially during Christmas."

Local statistics on vehicle crimes are not immediately available. But nationally, an organization said more than 500,000 Americans will become victims of vehicle crime between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day.

The National Automobile Theft Bureau estimates 200,000 vehicles will be stolen during the 51/2-week holiday season. During the same time, thieves will steal 315,000 items such as gifts, coats, radios, stereo systems and phones from cars.

"The total cost of the crimes will add up to $1.2 billion," NATB said.

Cockayne and the NATB offered these suggestions to deter auto theft:

- Close all windows, lock all doors and take the keys with you.

- Place shopping bags, gifts and other valuables in the trunk or out of sight. If possible, conceal stereos, radar detectors and other electronic equipment attractive to thieves.

- Park in well-lighted areas and activate any anti-theft device you may have. "They (auto thieves) can get pretty bold and just smash in windows if they see something they want," Cockayne said.

- Don't leave car running when you are not in it. Cockayne said there are incidents of vehicles being warmed up in the morning and taken from driveways as the drivers are inside the home.

- Park with front wheels turned sharply toward the curb, gears engaged in park or another gear, and with the emergency brake on to make it difficult for someone to tow your car.

If a car is stolen, the NATB said owners can help in its recovery and identification by leaving "secret brands" of identification, such as:

- Etching the vehicle identification number in several hard-to-find spots.

- Writing your name, address and vehicle identification number under the hood or trunk with a dye marker.

- Slip business cards or something with your name on it under the floor mats, behind the seats and into the window channel of the door.