By Chris Tye

CHICAGO (CBS) — Masks are essential for mitigating the spread of COVID-19, but they may also be emboldening multiple carjacking crews in Chicago.

As CBS 2’s Chris Tye reported, police say the balancing act wherein masks help stop COVID but also enable thieves may even be partly responsible for a massive spike in carjacking cases.

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The bad news in all of this is that a woman who was leaving a ladies’ lunch on Sunday and a man who was unloading his groceries on Tuesday were both victims of carjackings in Bucktown. The good news is that late Wednesday, there was word of a possible arrest of a cluster of suspected carjackers who were operating near highway on-ramps for quick getaways.

The woman who was carjacked after that ladies’ lunch talked with Tye on Wednesday.

“I just didn’t want to die,” she said.

At 1:58 p.m. Sunday, two teenagers were about to give the suburban woman the scare of her life in a parking lot in the Wicker Park-Bucktown area. Video shows one of them trying to carjack her from the passenger side of her car, while the other moves around back.

“I didn’t want them to get on my driver’s side,” the woman said. “I just knew that if either one of these guys were to make it on the driver’s side, they would probably pull out a gun or something like that – and I didn’t want to die.”

The woman slammed into reverse.

“I missed him by an inch – but lucky him,” she said. “But I tried to get him.”

She missed and they scampered. But then, a trend continued.

“There is a huge spike this year in carjackings,” said Chicago Police Chief of Detectives Brendan Deenihan.

Chicago Police are not sure if four carjackings in this city this past weekend are connected. But consider this – Chicago saw 516 carjackings in all of 2019, while with a month and change still to go in 2020, there have been 1,145.

That is a 120 percent jump that doesn’t include the case of the woman Tye spoke with.

“I have dreams about that day, because it could have went another way,” the woman said.

The way trends are moving, a masked America may be partly to blame.

“The simple answer is yes,” Deenihan said.

Being covered up for COVID makes identifying crooks harder.

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“They only have a split second or two to possibly see who the defendant is, and when they’re covered up in a mask, that makes it even more difficult,” said Deenihan.

As for the woman who was carjacked and talked to Tye, she said, “Definitely, I’m a little paranoid now.”

She had been wrapping up a day with her sisters – massages and lunch on the city’s North Side.

“My other sisters said, ‘Oh, we’re on the North Side – you’re fine,” she said. “And that happened.”

But the Milwaukee Avenue Corridor in particular has seen many similar incidents lately. A man unloading groceries in Bucktown was also victimized Tuesday, according to social media posts.

The message for the rest of us, the woman said, is, “Need to stay aware and alert – absolutely.”

Police believe there may be a link to south suburban Harvey in the crimes. A credit card that was inside one of the cars that was stolen saw some activity in Harvey, so police are spending time investigating that possible link.

Meanwhile, our CBS 2 investigative producers did some digging. The area that has seen the biggest jump in carjackings over the past two years is the Deering (9th) District – which includes Chinatown, Armour Square, Bridgeport, Back of the Yards, Canaryville, Fuller Park, McKinley Park, and Brighton Park.

So far this year, there have been 85 carjackings in that area.

The area with the most carjackings in the entire city of Chicago this year is the Harrison (11th) on the city’s West Side, which includes Humboldt Park, West Humboldt Park, East and West Garfield Park, and parts of North Lawndale.

Eleven months in, there’s been 141 carjackings reported this year in the district.

The Chicago Police Department formed a carjacking task force in 2018. Because the task force was successful, the CPD ended it, but this year, they brought it back.

The task force was reassembled in February as carjackings spiked.

Currently, the task force is part of the team working with local businesses get a network together utilizing their security cameras for faster access by authorities – particularly car dealerships near highway exit ramps.

But when pressed for what specific successes or help the task force has provided given the spike in numbers, Deenihan said Wednesday that he will have the communications team get back to us.

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