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

Searching for missing vehicles has become a second job for Mr Crawford, who sells trucks for a living and has a deep knowledge of vehicle makes and styles from years in car sales.

On the last day off, Mr. Crawford was at his computer until 7 a.m., drinking coffee while going through emails and Facebook messages, using an online database of vehicle history reports to check the identification numbers of vehicles that users have reported vehicles that look out of place — some with torn-up interiors, damaged ignitions or otherwise seemingly abandoned.

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

At one point, he stopped a Toyota SUV that was making an unusual humming noise.

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

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

He spent the rest of the day driving around neighborhoods, taking videos of cars that seemed out of place so he could later check the license plates. Many stolen cars that can still be returned end up reappearing in industrial districts, in car dealerships, in parks or shopping malls, he said.

Homeless camps are also a common sight, Mr. Crawford said as he walked past one, careful not to disturb the residents. He said some homeless neighbors have joined the group to help find cars. In the camps he ignores all other petty 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.”