Over the last several years, vehicle theft has actually decreased in frequency at the national level. People often attribute this decrease to the sophisticated anti-theft systems that now come standard on most new vehicles or an increased effort from law enforcement to fight car theft.
However, the problem still occurs with alarming frequency. There are still many car thieves out there. With the help of this guide, hopefully you will never join the ranks of the millions of people who have already fallen victim to car theft.
A Crime of Epidemic Proportions
Vehicle theft is one of the most common major crimes in the U.S. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, there were over 720,000 thefts reported during 2012 alone. The resulting damages totaled more than $4.3 billion.
These numbers actually represent a slight dip compared to previous years. Vehicle theft was at an all-time high in 2005, when there were 1.2 million vehicles stolen. Since then, the number of overall thefts has decreased, but it is still sizable.
In fact, someone steals a car in the United States every 44 seconds! In urban areas, it's an even more pervasive problem. Barely half of these stolen vehicles are ever recovered. While vehicle theft is difficult to completely prevent, there are several steps drivers can take to deter would-be thieves.
Being Smart to Prevent Theft
An estimated 40-50 percent of all vehicle thefts are the result of driver carelessness. In these situations, the driver left their car unlocked, left the keys in an accessible area, or even left the car running. These mistakes are easily preventable. They also may nullify any theft coverage you had through comprehensive insurance.
In addition to being vigilant, many precautions you can take to prevent theft don’t require a great deal of effort on your part:
- Lock your doors - Locked doors are the first and easiest line of defense. When a thief encounters locked doors, they must now use a method to enter the car that is more time consuming or that draws more attention, such as breaking the window. This challenge creates fewer situations where stealing your car is worth the trouble, giving thieves an incentive to move on if the vehicle is in a conspicuous area.
- Never leave a car running unattended - An unlocked, running car with keys in the ignition is an open invitation for thieves. It can be tempting to leave a car running to go in a gas station or while the engine is warming up, but it's inherently risky. If your car needs to warm up or defrost, wait inside of it.
- Park Safely - There is a descending order of preference for potential parking spots. Safely stored in a locked garage is ideal, but not everyone has that luxury. If you're parked in a driveway, pull as close to the house as possible. When parking on the street, try to find a well-illuminated area.
- Prevent theft by towing - If you park on the roadside, thieves could potentially use a tow truck to haul your vehicle away. To avoid this danger, turn your wheels toward the curb and engage the parking brake. This makes it difficult for a thief to tow your vehicle. Also pay attention to how you orient your vehicle when parking in a driveway. Front wheel drive vehicles are harder to tow when parked facing away from the front of the driveway, and rear wheel drive vehicles are harder to tow when backed into the driveway with the front facing the street.
- Be careful parking long term - If you have to leave your car in a long-term lot, make sure it's one with ample security. Remove all valuables before leaving. You should also consider disabling the vehicle in some way. There are many components you can remove to make the vehicle impossible to start, such as:
- The ignition fuse
- The coil wire
- The rotor
- The distributor
- Leave the windows up - In warm weather, drivers often like to leave their windows down or partially cracked. While it's unpleasant to return to a car that has become a virtual sauna, it's better than returning to no car at all. Cracking your windows lets thieves use hooked instruments to pop open your locks. A windshield reflector is a safe alternative, and similarly effective at keeping the hot sunlight from turning your car into an oven.
- Conceal valuables - Hide everything. Don't leave anything visually tempting for car thieves. CDs, laptops, cell phones, iPods, luggage, and anything else of significant value are all incentive enough for a thief to steal your car instead of another one. Make sure to remove these items entirely or place them out of sight, preferably in some sort of locked compartment. If your stereo has a removable faceplate, be vigilant about removing it when you park your car.
- Refrain from hiding a spare key - A second set of keys hidden either inside or outside of the car gives thieves an easy way to turn the ignition without “hotwiring” it. Most thieves are good at what they do and have become familiar with all the typical hiding spots. Because of this fact, leaving a spare key on your vehicle is simply too risky. Keep a spare key, but leave it at home.
- Get a tint job - Tinting your windows makes it more difficult for thieves to see valuables that you may have forgotten to remove. Tint also keeps your vehicle cooler during the summer, lessening the need to crack your windows.
- Get an Anti-Theft device and use more than one - Devices such as steering wheel clubs, pedal locks and armored collars are difficult for the average thief to work around. Many vehicles also come with an anti-theft system or car alarm that alerts passersby to possible foul-play. If your vehicle doesn't have one, it's relatively inexpensive to purchase an aftermarket system. The Club and other locking devices make it much more difficult to drive a vehicle away. Expert thieves can generally find a way to disable them, but they are often just enough of a deterrent to convince a thief to look elsewhere.
- Install an ignition or fuel system lock - If you live in a high-risk area, you may want to consider installing a hidden switch or trigger that disables the ignition or fuel system. A properly disguised switch can keep a thief from being able to start your car.
Be Wary of Secondary Crimes After a Vehicle Theft
Most car thieves just want your vehicle or its parts. Others want to go the extra mile to extract as much ill-gotten cash from you as possible.
Any personal information left in the vehicle can lead to possible identity theft, or a later home invasion. Be wary of keeping any such information on hand that could give thieves access to personal data like bank account numbers, social security numbers or your home address. Definitely do not leave any extra bankcards or check books lying around in your vehicle. Being aware of the related dangers can save you from a lot of headaches down the road.
Buy Comprehensive Insurance
Sometimes a recovered vehicle is a total loss. Stolen cars get stripped, parted-out, and heavily damaged.
Getting back a gutted, un-drivable shell of your former car isn't going to go a long way in getting you back on the road. Comprehensive auto insurance paired with a renters or home insurance policy is the best way to protect yourself.
Compare quotes for comprehensive insurance coverage from top companies and local agents.
How to Increase the Odds of Recovery
Unfortunately, even with preventative measures in place, a determined thief might still find a way to steal your vehicle. There are a second set of measures that, while doing very little to prevent the theft of your vehicle, ensure that your vehicle can be easily recovered:
- Prominently display the VIN number. Displaying the designated Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) on as many major parts of a vehicle as possible makes it difficult for thieves to part-out stolen cars. Rather than being able to cover up one VIN, they now have etchings all over the car that marks it and its parts as stolen. Taking the time to etch the VIN number onto the doors, interior, windshield, and dash can go a long way if you ever have to recover your car. It can also help convince thieves that your vehicle is not worth the trouble of stealing in the first place.
- Remove the title. Never travel with the title to your vehicle inside it. This information gives the thief access to means that can conceal the cars ownership. You're required to carry proof of registration in your vehicle, but never the title. As soon as you receive the title to a vehicle, save it in a safe place until you decide to sell it.
- Install a tracking system. Systems like LoJack and OnStar are radio-tracking devices that help police find vehicles when they are stolen. With these systems in place, a vehicle is often found within hours of it being reported stolen.
Avoiding Stolen Vehicles
Having your car stolen is not the only danger that thieves present. Many times they will use deception to sell you or a middleman a stolen vehicle. Buying a vehicle such as this can often result in the car becoming impounded without any compensation. You may also be suspected of being an accessory to robbery or an illegal sale, in extreme circumstances.
To avoid the headache and the heartache of having the vehicle you just bought being repossessed by law enforcement; look for the following warning signs:
- Obvious signs of intrusion damage. In rare instances, a thief will do nothing to cover up the evidence of their break in. A car with a broken window or a shattered lock is a dead giveaway that the vehicle could have been stolen. Other red flags include a loose ignition or an opened steering column. Most thieves aren’t dumb enough to leave these tracks behind, but some criminal minds never cease to amaze.
- Sudden cosmetic updates. The most common technique to disguise a stolen car is to give it a new coat of paint. Any vehicle that has been freshly painted or that looks like it was sprayed in a hurry should be met with skepticism. A vehicle with many aftermarket parts hurriedly cobbled together can be a similar sign. For example, a vehicle with an unusual spoiler, wheels and tint for the model could potentially be an altered stolen car.
- Tampered VIN. Most vehicles have a VIN plate that is riveted directly onto the dash. There is no reason that this plate should be bent, detached, or look mismatched from the vehicle in terms of age. A loose dash assembly could also signify that someone has swapped out the entire housing in order to alter the apparent VIN.
- Mismatched numbers. A title and registration should match with the person and their vehicle. You can also use the federal safety inspection sticker or serial numbers on parts like the engine block to match the vehicle with its VIN.
- “Whitewashed” title or registration. A title is usually good for the life of its vehicle. The title can be transferred between owners and locations quite easily. An older vehicle with a brand new title can be a suspicious sign that someone is trying to hide the vehicle’s true origin. They may have even counterfeited the documents.
- “Too good to be true.” If someone is trying to sell a vehicle that’s so cheap that it seems like a “steal,” it just may be… literally. Ask lots of questions any time an asking price is far below what you’d expect to pay for a vehicle. Also beware of anyone that is motivated to sell in a hurry, or dodges standard questions.
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