Auto theft - How to reduce your risk
Your risk of having your car stolen depends on three things: where you live (urban areas more than rural; port and border cities more than other cities); what car you drive (certain makes and models are more popular with car thieves); and what steps you've taken to reduce your risk. We'll examine each factor. At the end we review the statistics on stolen cars, the direct and indirect costs, and some manufacturing trends that can help reduce theft.
Port and border cities experience higher rates of theft - Data from the National Insurance Crime Bureau shows that 40 percent of all auto thefts (450,000 yearly) occur in or around ports and border communities. More than 200,000 vehicles are exported illegally from the United States every year according to the FBI. Los Angeles tops the list (65,243 vehicles), followed by New York (46,709), Philadelphia (30,355), Phoenix (29,868), and Houston (28,263). Miami (20,977), Riverside-San Bernardino (19,821), San Diego (18,685), Seattle (18,304), and Oakland (17,293) round out the top ten areas most affected by auto theft.
"More and more vehicles are being targeted for export by thieves who sneak them out through ports and across borders," said Robert Bryant, president and chief executive officer of NICB, the insurance industry's theft and fraud-fighting organization. "People who live in these areas should take special care to protect their cars and trucks from thieves."
US and Canadian government agencies, and private insurers impacted by increases in the export of stolen vehicles, have created the North American Export Committee to combat the growing problem. The NAEC promotes the use of task forces, electronic data reporting and non-intrusive x-ray scanning machines to locate suspect containers before they go to sea. In its first three months of use at the port of Miami, a NAEC-supplied x-ray machine scanned 8,000 containers and paid for itself by recovering $217,000 in stolen vehicles.
How does your city stack up? - Are you living in or near a hotbed of car thefts? Below, the theft rate means that one theft occurs for every n vehicle, where n is the rate. For instance, if the rate is 50, one in 50 vehicles was stolen. The lower the rate, the higher the risk. Is your vehicle one of the most-often stolen in your state? Which cars are most likely to be stolen nationwide? Insure.com's Auto Theft Risk Calculator gives you the answers to assess your theft risk.
|1997 Auto theft rates for worst 50 metropolitan areas source - National Insurance Crime Bureau.)|
#Of Registered Vehicles
Jersey City, NJ
New York, NY
New Orleans, LA
Lakeland-Winter Haven, FL
Pine Bluff, AR
Los Angeles-Long Beach, CA
Fort Lauderdale, FL
Riverside-San Bernardino, CA
West Palm Bch-Boca Raton, FL
San Diego, CA
El Paso, TX
Myrtle Beach, SC
San Antonio, TX
Baton Rouge, LA
Fort Myers-Cape Coral, FL
Salt Lake City-Ogden, UT
Popular Vehicles - Thieves have a preference for stealing cars that are easily stolen, and ones they've stolen before. Honda, and Toyota products are popular throughout the nation due to popularity and ability to resale Parts. CCC Information Service's annual survey of the most frequently stolen vehicles found that the 1989, 1990, and 1991 Toyota Camrys were the most popular with thieves in 1999, followed by the 1998 Toyota Camry. The 1997 Ford F150 premiered at fifth place. 6th through 10th place were taken by the Honda Accord (1994, 1995, 1996, 1990, and 1994). The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) rates vehicles differently, combining all model years of the same vehicle. In 1998 the NICB found that the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry were thieves' most popular vehicles, followed by the full-sized Chevrolet pickup and the Jeep Cherokee & Grand Cherokee (sharing 1 position). Next came the Honda Civic and the Oldsmobile Cutlass, closely followed by the Ford F-series pickup. The Ford Mustang, Dodge Caravan and Toyota Corolla rounded out the top ten. NICB's list is based on stolen vehicle reports issued by its members (insurance companies), and account for one third of all US auto thefts.
Component theft - For many years radio thefts were the biggest component-theft problem, but thieves have become more ambitious. They now steal steering wheel airbags and electronic control modules (ECMs). NICB says that airbag theft costs insurers about $50 million a year; thefts have tripled in the last few years. Stolen airbags are sold to unscrupulous body shops, who use them to replace air bags that have deployed in accidents and airbags that have been stolen by other thieves. ECMs are the computers that control electronic systems in today's automobiles. They are small (book-sized), valuable ($300 - $1200), plentiful (most cars have at least 4 ECMs), easy to locate, and incredibly easy to steal. Many mail-order companies offer cash for used ECMs, so the fencing opportunities are unlimited.
Car stereos remain desirable targets for theft in one group: customized sport compact cars and minitrucks. They often have systems costing $3000 and up, at times exceeding the cost of the vehicle itself.
What can you do? - The Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association predicts consumers will spend over $400 million this year for electronic devices to protect their vehicles from theft. As discussed above, your risk depends partly on your location and on the car you drive, but you can lower your risk significantly by paying attention to your behavior and your location. Additionally, theft-prevention schemes can significantly reduce your risk.
Experts recommend a five-tiered system that can be customized to each individual's vehicle and geographic location. "Motorists driving theft-prone vehicles need to take additional steps, such as installing a visible deterrent like a steering wheel lock, an alarm, a starter or fuel disabler and a tracking device," says Robert Bryant, president and chief executive officer of NICB. "The more layers of protection on your vehicle, the more difficult it is to steal."
- The first step is to use good judgment, park your vehicle in well-lit areas, always remove your keys, and lock the doors.
- The second step is to use an alarm system that has sirens and flashing lights that call attention to a vehicle in the midst of a theft.
- The third step uses anti-theft hardware like steering wheel/brake pedal locks, steering wheel covers & shields, and armored steering column collars. They can all be custom-installed for your individual make and model. These items will stop most joy-riders, however experienced thieves can quickly render them useless.
- The fourth step involves immobilizing devices such as ignition cutoffs, and starter and fuel system disablers.
- The fifth and highest level of protection involves the use of sophisticated electronic tracking devices such as Lo-Jack.
Here's some things to think about before you park your vehicle.
- Auto thieves do not like witnesses, so whenever possible, park your car in public areas, out in the open, preferably where there are lots of people. At night, park in well-lit areas with pedestrian traffic.
- Avoid leaving your car in an unattended parking lot for an extended period of time. A car is five times more likely to be stolen from an unattended lot than an attended lot or the street.
- Leave only the ignition key with a parking attendant. If your trunk and glove box use the same key as the door, have one of them changed. Don't give the attendant easy access to your glove box and trunk. Upon returning, check the tires, spare and battery to insure they are the same as those you had when you parked. A dishonest parking lot attendant may have your house keys duplicated as well. He could jot down your home address, include it with the duplicate keys and sell them to a third party for a tidy profit.
- Always take parking claim checks with you. Do not leave them in your car.
- Lock all doors and roll up windows when ever you leave your vehicle, even for short errands.
- Never leave your car running and unattended, even if you'll only be gone for a minute. Vehicles are commonly stolen at convenience stores, gas stations, ATM's, etc. Many vehicles are also stolen on cold mornings when the owner leaves the vehicle running to warm up. Leaving your key in an unattended motor vehicle is a crime in Texas punishable by a fine of up to $200.
- Don't make your car a more desirable target for thieves by leaving possessions in plain sight.
- Whenever possible, turn wheels sharply toward the curb when parking. This makes it extra difficult for thieves to tow your car.
Lo-Jack - Lo-Jack is a remote-control system that disables your car and alerts the police to its location in the event it's stolen or carjacked. A toll-free phone call disables the vehicle's electrical system, stopping the thief's progress. The police then home in on the distress signal, locating your auto and apprehending the thief at the same time. Besides the 95 percent recovery rate claimed by Lo-Jack, a National Bureau of Research study found that if an area has Lo-Jack installed in 2 percent of cars, theft losses can be reduced by 40 percent in central cities and 13 percent in Lo-Jack's entire range. Lo-Jack is currently available for use in 15 states and 20 major cities. Because frequent thefts (5 or more per day) are a characteristic of the professional auto thief, apprehending a few key players can significantly reduce an area's theft statistics.
Insurance company discounts for anti-theft devices - Twelve states (Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, and Washington) require insurers to give car owners discounts on their comprehensive insurance for anti-theft devices. Passive devices (systems that are automatically activated when the car is locked and do not depend on the driver to remember to activate them) may qualify for up to a 30 % discount. Examples of passive devices include ignition cutoffs, some types of alarms, and electronic auto recovery systems. Generally, insurers favor passive devices, even in states that do not mandate discounts. Other deterrents may also qualify drivers for insurance discounts, varying by state and insurer.
Some further suggestions for preventing theft and enabling recovery if your car is stolen:
- Ask local police and motorists' associations for advice on which cars are most difficult for thieves to steal.
- If your insurance company doesn't have a picture of your car, take one yourself and keep it in a safe place; it will make the job easier for police if your car is stolen. When you park your car at home, ask your neighbors to keep an eye on it, and do the same for them.
- If you have an alarm on your vehicle, use it!
- Avoid leaving your keys with others; keys can be stolen or copied. If you must leave a spare key on the outside of your car, be sure that it is well hidden.
- Never attach a tag with your name and address to a key ring. If the keys are lost or stolen, the tag will lead the thief directly to your car and home.
- Potential car thieves often note identification numbers printed on ignition keys or vehicle ID tags included on a new car's key ring. With these numbers they can easily obtain duplicates from car dealers by posing as the car's owner and presenting the key number. You can help deter this practice by having a car dealer or locksmith punch out those numbers from your keys. Before you do this, however, record the numbers in a safe place in case you need duplicates.
- Mark some of the more expensive parts on your car in an inconspicuous place with an engraving tool, using your car's VIN (Vehicle Identification Number). On metal parts, cover the number with rust-inhibitor.
- Etch all glass/windows with the vehicle identification number (VIN). Etching the VIN on the vehicle's glass not only aids law enforcement and insurance agencies in the recovery and identification of stolen vehicles, it also takes profit away from the professional auto thief.
- Vehicles carried on trailers should be secured with strong thick chains and large padlocks.
- Make your views known to car manufacturers and legislators: the theft-resistance of most cars could be improved at very little cost at the manufacturing stage.
- Lobby your local congressmen and state legislators for stricter rules for registering vehicles and tracking the disposition of cars that are scrapped. The VIN plates of junked vehicles too often find their way onto stolen cars, thus "legitimizing" them in official records.
If your vehicle is stolen or vandalized - Inform the police immediately. Stolen vehicles are often used in the commission of another crime. Quick action by you may not only aid in the recovery of your vehicle, but prevent its use for illegal purposes. If you recover your own vehicle, notify the police immediately.
Don't buy a stolen vehicle - Not all stolen cars are stripped for parts. Many are resold to unknowing and unsuspecting buyers. If you knowingly buy a stolen car, you can be arrested. If you buy a stolen car unknowingly, you could lose the car and your money. Avoid becoming the car thief's second victim by following these tips:
- Be suspicious of any deal that seems "too good to be true."
- When buying from a private individual, make sure that the title and registration match the name and address of the person selling the car.
- Be cautious of a seller with no fixed address, place of employment or phone number.
- Ask the seller for references about past financing and insurance on the vehicle. Verify the information with the bank, finance company, or agent.
- Ensure the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) plate on the automobile's dash is present, secure, and has no loose rivets.
- Check to ensure the VIN plate has not been repainted and the numbers stamped in the plate appear to be the original factory numbers.
- Thieves may remove the VIN plate and replace it with one from a similar wrecked vehicle. If in doubt about plate authenticity, check with a new car dealer who handles the same model, or contact a law enforcement agency.
Statistics - Each year, more than a million vehicles are stolen in the United States, with a car stolen every 23 seconds, according to the Insurance Information Institute (III). The odds of your car being taken were 1 in 171 in 1998, says the III. Car thieves, like home burglars, generally have an easy time. The crime is made simple by car owners who obligingly leave doors unlocked (in 4 out of 5 cases of auto theft) or who leave keys in the ignition (in 1 out of 5 cases). The actual problem may well be greater than the numbers indicate. Many victims of auto theft don't report the loss if they don't have a valid driver's license, or are driving without insurance, or if police intervention may uncover illicit activities.
Carjackings - Statistically, carjackings account for 3.5 percent of all motor vehicle thefts nationwide. The FBI considers carjacking a violent crime. Carjackings happen most often at night, in urban neighborhoods, at intersections or parking lots located at malls and public buildings. They are not usually committed by professional car thieves, but rather by potentially violent, armed young males. Most known carjackers are gang members and over 90% of them brandish a weapon. 23% of carjacking victims are injured. For more information, go to our carjacking information page.
Costs - Auto theft is a $7.5 billion business and growing, despite a declining rate of theft across the country, according to the latest FBI Uniform Crime Report. In 1998, thieves stole 8.4 % fewer cars than in 1997, but the average value of each motor vehicle stolen was $6,030, up 11 % from 1997's $5,416: overall, $200 million more in 1998 than in 1997.
Who steals? - Juveniles steal in groups, while professionals, with established contacts within the industry, generally steal cars alone. The theft of new vehicles is not a chop- shop operation. Vehicles are stolen to order and shipped overseas, often to the former Soviet Union, the Middle East, or to South America. Police apprehend a disappointing 14 percent of all auto thieves, a percentage that has remained constant for the past decade. Young people account for the bulk of arrests. 67% of all persons arrested were under 25 years old, with juveniles (people under 18) accounting for 36% of the total. Thefts are most prevalent in the South, where 36% of all vehicle thefts occur. Western states account for 28% of all reported thefts, while the Midwest and Northeast report 20% and 16% of all thefts, respectively.
How are insurance rates affected by theft? - Coverage for theft is included in the comprehensive part of an auto insurance policy, a voluntary coverage, which also covers fire, vandalism and weather-related damage. Comprehensive premiums may be dropping in a few high-theft areas but they may not be going down at the same rate as auto thefts. Premiums are affected by the number of insured cars stolen and their cost. The number of theft claims is declining but the dollar size of claims has gone up, reflecting the higher value of new cars on the road. In addition, the theft rate does not reflect the theft of car parts such as air bags, a $50 million per year problem where the cost of replacement includes both parts and labor.
Insurance Groups - The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) combats auto theft by investigating cases referred to it by insurers and through its on-line data bases. The data bases allow member insurance companies to search its files by driver identification data, and also by license plate numbers, vehicle identification numbers (VIN) and component vehicle part and type numbers. Information leading to the identification of the vehicle used in the World Trade Center bombing of 1993 was obtained through one of NICB's data bases, which allows the user to enter a partial VIN. The system then reconstructed the VIN and matched it to a van stolen from a truck rental company on the day of the bombing.
Manufacturers - Recent-model Mercedes-Benz vehicles are fitted with a "smartkey" system instead of the traditional mechanical key. Smartkey uses a difficult-to-mimic infrared exchange of data to tell the car to start. The usual method of breaking the steering column and stealing the car is no longer mechanically possible. "A two-bit car thief is simply not going to be successful," says Fred Heiler, public relations manager at Mercedes-Benz Corp. "It has to be a real pro." Despite this, Mercedes-Benz has taken even greater measures to ensure that their cars cannot be stolen. Year 2000 models are fitted with an in-car tracking system. "That should make a dramatic difference," Heiler says. He explains that the system is activated only after the owner has reported the car stolen, so as not to invade a rightful driver's privacy. However, "as soon as the owner reports the theft, we take action and track the vehicle."
Other European manufacturers offer electronic keys that contain a transmitter that sends an ID code to the engine management system. If the code does not match, the vehicle will not start. Since the early 1990s, luxury GM vehicles have been equipped with a similar system that signals the car's computer not to operate unless a special "chipped" ignition key is present. It is interesting to note that both the CCCIS & NICB Top Ten Stolen Vehicle Lists consist entirely of vehicles whose manufacturers don't offer electronic immobilizer key systems.
Check also - Auto Theft Prevention Tips from an Police Officer