Car theft is a crime that seems to know no boundaries. It is a concern in most parts of the country, and it puts most types of vehicle at risk. Since your car is one of your most valuable investments, here are key car theft prevention tips to help you protect it.

In this article:

Is car theft becoming more common?

Vehicle theft in America peaked at 1.7 million in 1991 and trended downward for more than two decades after that, according to federal crime statistics. However, the 810,400 vehicle thefts in 2020 was the highest amount since 2008, and an 11.8% increase from 2019.

Here’s what to do if your car is stolen.

The not-for-profit National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) attributes the recent uptick to a variety of possible causes, including the pandemic and economic downturn.

In its annual Hot Wheels report, NICB noted that full-size Ford full pickup trucks were the most common targets of car thieves.

Top 10 stolen vehicles in 2020
Vehicle make and model Number of thefts Most common model year stolen
Ford full-size pickup 44,014 2006
Chevrolet full-size pickup 40.968 2004
Honda Civic 34,144 2000
Honda Accord 30,814 1997
Toyota Camry 16,915 2019
Source: National Insurance Crime Bureau, Hot Wheels report, October 2021.

How do thieves steal cars?

Today’s car thieves rely on a variety of old-fashioned techniques and new-school methods to steal cars.

The old-fashioned practice of jimmying open a car door and hot wiring the ignition only works on vehicles without the anti-theft key and fob systems that began appearing in vehicles in the 1990s.

Now present in most new cars, these systems prevent a car from starting until the car’s computer receives a signal from a microchip inside the key or fob. While chipped keys and fobs make newer cars difficult to steal, some thieves have found ways to defeat them.

In one scheme, called a relay attack, thieves working in tandem use handheld devices to capture, amplify and transmit radio waves between a car’s computer and a fob, often while the fob is inside the victim’s home or office. These theft devices essentially trick the computer into thinking that the owner is approaching the car, so it unlocks the door and allows the thieves to start the car and drive away.

Relay attacks target certain cars with keyless entry and ignition, and manufacturers have been developing solutions to thwart these types of thefts.

Of course, car thieves don’t need technology to prey upon complacency. Approximately 10% of vehicle thefts between 2017 and 2019 involved cars with the key or fob in the vehicle, according to NICB. These include cars left running while unattended, as well as cars with a spare key in them.

What can I do to prevent car theft?

No system is fully impenetrable, but there are a number of simple steps you can take to significantly reduce the likelihood of your vehicle being stolen. NICB recommends a four-tiered approach that includes common sense, theft deterrents, vehicle immobilizers and vehicle trackers.

Common sense

The easiest things you can do to reduce the likelihood of your car being stolen are also the most obvious.

  • Avoid leaving a running car unattended, and don’t keep the keys or fob in the vehicle when you’re not in it.
  • While it’s tempting to hide a spare key in a discreet location in or on the car, experienced car thieves often know where to look.
  • Your car is safest in a closed garage or secured lot, but if you have to park outside, do so in a well-lit place. Car thieves hate visibility.

If your car has keyless entry and ignition, you can ask the dealership if the manufacturer has updated the system to prevent relay attacks. If you’re not sure, consider storing your fob in a container that blocks radio waves, such as a Faraday pouch, when it’s not in use.

Auto theft deterrent devices

Car thieves often rely on speed and the ability to remain inconspicuous, so devices that slow them down or draw attention to them can be an effective auto theft deterrent.

An audible car alarm can scare off a would-be thief. Visible theft deterrents, such as The Club, a steering wheel collar or wheel lock let the thief know your car will require extra time and equipment to steal. This might be enough to make some thieves target a different vehicle.

Just remember that systems such as these have their limitations. Some thieves know how to quickly deactivate the alarm on certain cars. And some carry bolt cutters or other tools to dismantle deterrents such as wheel collars and tire locks.

Vehicle immobilizer systems

An engine kill switch and a starter disabler are among the vehicle immobilizer systems that can also help prevent car theft. These items prevent anyone from starting your car until a hidden switch is deactivated.

A variety of these types of devices are available from aftermarket auto part dealers, with many costing less than $100, before installation. Unless you are skilled with automobile wiring, it’s usually best to have a reputable professional install one of these devices for you, because they often tap into your car’s electrical system.

Tracking technology

Evolving in-car telematics systems, which fuse wireless technology with GPS, are making it easier for car theft victims and law enforcement to locate stolen vehicles.

GM’s OnStar, for example, offers an optional service in which its staff will locate your car, if it’s stolen, and work with law enforcement to retrieve it. This service is included in OnStar subscription packages that range from about $30 to $50 a month.

Several retailers offer GPS tracking devices that you can place in your car and monitor on your smartphone. In addition to locating your car, these devices allow you to monitor the way your car is being driven by others, such as your teens. Many of these devices can also be programmed to issue an alert when your vehicle crosses a geofence you create.

A variety of these types of GPS tracking devices are available for about $40 to $80, plus a monthly subscription fee. You’ll want to keep it in a place where a thief won’t see it. Otherwise, they can just remove it from the car before they drive away.

How does car insurance offer theft protection?

Although your car insurance won’t prevent your car from being stolen, adding or keeping comprehensive coverage on your policy provides financial protection from car theft.

No state law requires you to carry comprehensive coverage, but lenders usually require it, along with collision coverage, if you finance your car.

Here are the most common ways comprehensive insurance covers car theft:

  • If your car can’t be recovered, the insurance company will send you a check for the car’s value.
  • If the car is recovered, the insurance company will pay to repair any damage, up to the car’s value.
  • If the cost of repairing a recovered vehicle exceeds its value, the insurance company usually declares it a total loss and cuts you a check for its value.

Under any of these scenarios, your comprehensive deductible is subtracted from the insurance settlement.

Comprehensive coverage is usually not very expensive, and most insurance companies offer a discount on it if your car is equipped with an anti-theft device.

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