Ekim Kaya, a tech entrepreneur and car fanatic, was driving his Lamborghini to the Manhattan Classic Car Club one evening a couple of years ago when a scooter sideswiped him on the West Side Highway. Kaya got out, expecting to exchange information. Instead the two young men on the scooter assaulted him, and stole his $240,000 car.

Police later that night found the Lamborghini crashed at a McDonald’s drive-thru in the Bronx. The carjackers were never caught.

And Kaya, who lives in Tribeca, said he now avoids driving in the city. He said he’s concerned about all crimes, not just carjackings, and he asks his fiancé not to use the subway.

“I’m – especially at night – always on alert,” he said.

But Kaya admitted he’s not just afraid of crime because he was a victim. It’s not even just because of the spike in violent crimes in New York City since the onset of the pandemic. Some of his fear, he said, is rooted in what he sees on TikTok every day – “people breaking into businesses, stealing stuff, and being able to get away with it.”

Polls indicate a growing sense of the city as dangerous. Major crime totals are up compared to 2019, before the pandemic, when crime was at historic lows. And so far this year, six out of seven major crimes – rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny, and grand larceny of a vehicle – are seeing double-digit percentage increases over last year.

But what has increased perhaps more than crime is the fear of crime. In 2001, all categories of major crimes were higher than in 2021. But in February of that year, just 36% of New York City voters described crime as a very serious problem, a Quinnipiac University poll found. The same pollsters asked New Yorkers the same question this February, and even though crime rates are lower, 74% called crime a very serious problem.

Sociologist Barry Glassner, author of “Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things,” said one reason why people feel more afraid than they did in the past is the proliferation of images and videos of crimes in progress – from witness cell phones, police body cams, and surveillance video – is now filling social media feeds in a way it never did before.

“The thing that happens a lot these days is you have one incident, very dramatic, and it was caught on a cell phone and then it just goes everywhere,” Glassner said. “It stays in your mind. Facts about how very unlikely this is to happen to you don’t stay in your mind in the same way – they’re not as dramatic.”

It’s true that carjackings are up significantly. In 2021, there were four times more carjackings than in 2018. But they're still incredibly rare. There were 511 reported “vehicles taken by force” in the city last year, according to the NYPD. But with about 4.4 million vehicles crossing through the city every weekday, the odds of getting carjacked are really slim.

Still, that context is missing from television reports and social media, where recent carjackings have been caught on camera and broadcast. In the same way, when a shooter opened fire on a morning subway car in Sunset Park last month, there were images of bloodied victims on social media within hours. The sheer volume of footage of crimes in progress is a new phenomenon, and it might be skewing our perception of the crime problem in the city, Glassner said.

The problem, he said, is when scary crime stories are reported with anecdotes instead of contextualized facts.

“So if we see some scary incident like a carjacking it stays with us,” he said. “And then our brains take over in a way that doesn’t lead us to rational thought but leads us to irrationally run away from it or avoid getting in the situation where it could conceivably happen.”

And that could affect public policy. Horrifying crimes – like two cops shot and killed responding to a domestic call, a woman followed home and stabbed, and another woman pushed in front of a daytime train in Times Square – have prompted Mayor Eric Adams to call for fixes that mostly involve more aggressive policing and prosecution.

“We’re going to continue to work to restore New Yorkers’ sense of safety,” Gov. Kathy Hochul said last month after announcing a deal to let judges lock people up for more crimes. The statement was an indication of the importance of perception of safety beyond just safety itself.

Experts also believe another possible impact in the coverage of violent crime is that it is keeping tourists and commuters out of the city, potentially delaying the city's post-COVID economic recovery. A March survey from the Partnership For New York found that “personal safety” was the top concern for employees who were considering returning to work, with 74% of commuters who use public transit saying safety worsened since the pandemic.

“It’s just that digesting tiny little bits of news that do filter in and it feels like it’s a huge thing then,” said Julia Mullaney of West Caldwell, N.J.

She recently saw “American Utopia” on Broadway, and she had dinner with friends afterwards in Hells Kitchen. But she said crime news is having an effect on those in her community – like a colleague, who scuttled a planned trip to Times Square on a Saturday on the advice of a New Jersey police officer who she knows.

Mullaney said she has noticed people at restaurants and out riding bikes, indicating that New York is returning to normalcy. She tried to convince her colleague that while there’s a lot of crime in the news and on social media, that doesn’t represent the typical experience.

“It’s not actually affecting everybody who’s working in the city, it’s not affecting people who are going in to see a show, people going in to see concerts. There’s all this normal life that’s still happening,” Mullaney said. “It’s very frustrating to think people are thinking the city’s back to like 1989, and ya know, it’s just not.”

But her colleague still took the cop’s advice, and kept her family in New Jersey that Saturday.

“They ended up going to Hoboken instead,” she said.

WSHU's Charles Lane contributed to this report.