Gone But Not Forgotten

Auto theft is big business. That's what we told you in the last installment of the multi-part feature on the crime of auto theft, and we meant it. If stealing cars were a legitimate business like selling earthworms on the Internet or building bowling balls for Third World countries, it would instantly become a Fortune 500 company. Could an IPO commanding gross premiums be far behind?

Not only is auto theft big, it is also well organized. These days discriminating thieves don't just steal anything they can get their hands on. They're stealing for economic gain, so they pick and choose what they purloin. If you ask automotive journalists, today's thieves are bagging some pretty good iron, too. In fact, making the list of the most stolen cars in America might not make their manufacturers happy, but it really is a badge of honor.

According to CCC Information Services' 1999 Most-Stolen Vehicles Report, for the third straight year, Japanese imports filled the top spots as the most-stolen vehicles in the United States. In fact it was a literal runaway for the top two Japanese-based manufacturers in America. Some16 of the top 20 most-stolen vehicles were Toyotas, Hondas or Acuras.

Various models of the Toyota Camry, which also happens to be the best-selling car in the U.S., were the first, second, third, and fourth most-stolen vehicles. A collection of Honda Accords ranked sixth through 10th, separated from the Toyotas by the 1997 Ford F-150 two-wheel-drive pickup truck. The only other vehicles made by domestic manufacturers on the top 20 list were the 1994 Chevrolet C1500 pickup (11th), 1995 Ford Mustang (14th) and the 1989 Chevrolet Caprice (18th). The rankings are compiled annually by CCC based on total loss valuations for the previous 12 months.

For 1999, the study found that the 1989 Camry was stolen more frequently in the United States than any other vehicle, followed by the 1990, 1991 and 1988 Camry. The 1989 Camry was also the most-stolen vehicle for both 1997 and 1998. Although imports have taken their place as the most-stolen vehicles, 1999 proved a growth year for pickup truck theft. In 1998, pickup trucks held only 10 of the top 100 spots, equaling 1,579 vehicles. In 1999, pickup trucks held 18 of the top 100 spots, equaling 2,395 vehicles, a 52 percent increase.

As was the case in 1998, regional thieves pick regional favorites. In Texas, for example, nine of the top 10 spots were filled by pickup trucks. In the Midwest, American-made cars are top targets with the 1995 Plymouth Neon ranking number one in Michigan and the 1987 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale taking the top spot in Indiana. In contrast, imports such as Toyota, Nissan and Honda were popular targets among East and West Coast thieves.

The CCC Most-Stolen Vehicle study is based on an analysis of CCC's 1999 total loss insurance claims processed. In 1999, CCC valued, on average, more than 7,000 vehicles each business day for leading property/casualty insurers in the U.S. and Canada. These vehicles, lost through theft or collision, represent the vast majority of the nation's total loss volume. The figures reiterate the theme of this story - auto theft is big business.

But what can you as an individual do to protect yourself from the huge and ever-more-organized hazard that can strike at almost any time?

Your basic goal is to make your vehicle a tough target, one that will encourage the thief to move on to the next car. Remember, the more time the thief is forced to take to steal a car, the more likely he is to get caught, so if you make grabbing your car hard for him, it will usually pay off. Thanks to Pennsylvania's anti-auto theft task force, here are some helpful suggestions to do just that:

  1. Lock your car. Approximately 50 percent of all vehicles stolen were left unlocked.
  2. Take your keys. Nearly 13 percent of all vehicles stolen had the keys in them.
  3. Never hide a second set of keys in your car. It might seem like a good idea, but thieves know all the hiding places.
  4. Park in well-lit areas. Over half of all vehicle thefts occur at night.
  5. Park in attended lots. Auto thieves don't like witnesses.
  6. When you park in an attended lot, leave only the ignition and door key. Don't give the attendant easy access to your glove box and trunk. Upon returning, check the tires, spare, and battery to ensure they are the same as those you had when you parked. If your trunk and glove box use the same key as the door, have one of them changed.
  7. Never leave your car running unattended, not even if you'll only be gone for a minute. Vehicles are commonly stolen at convenience stores, gas stations, ATMs, etc. Many vehicles are also stolen on cold mornings when the owner leaves the vehicle running to warm it up.
  8. Completely close car windows when parked. Don't make it any easier for the thief to enter your vehicle.
  9. Don't leave valuables in plain view. Why make your car a more desirable target to thieves?
  10. Park your vehicle with wheels turned toward the curb. Many car thieves use tow trucks to steal vehicles, so make your car tough to tow away. Wheels should also be turned to the side in driveways and parking lots so the vehicle can only be towed from the front.
  11. If your vehicle is rear-wheel drive, back into your driveway. Rear wheels lock on four-wheel drive vehicles, making them difficult to tow. Front-wheel drive vehicles should be parked front-end first.
  12. Always use your emergency brake when parked. In addition to ensuring safety, using the emergency brake makes your car harder to tow.
  13. If you have a garage, use it. Parking your vehicle inside protects it from thieves as well as from Mother Nature.
  14. When parked in a garage, lock the garage door as well as your vehicle. By locking both the garage and vehicle doors, you greatly improve the chances of deterring a thief.
  15. Never leave the registration or title in your car. A car thief will use these to sell your stolen car. File the title at your home or office and carry your registration in your purse or wallet.
  16. Disable your vehicle when leaving it unattended for an extended period. Remove the electronic ignition fuse, coil wire, distributor rotor, or otherwise disable your vehicle anytime thieves may have prolonged access to it.
  17. Replace knob- or T-shaped interior door lock buttons with straight lock buttons. A thief can use various tools to gain access inside the vehicle to grab and pull the lock button up, unlocking the car.
  18. Etch your Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) on car windows and major parts. This makes tracing your stolen car or parts easier.
  19. Engrave expensive accessories with a personal identification number. This makes it easier for police to identify your stolen car stereo, cellular phone, etc. and harder for thieves to dispose of them.
  20. Drop business cards, address labels or other identification inside vehicle doors. Car thieves usually alter vehicle identification numbers. By marking your vehicle as much as possible, you assist police in identifying your car.

Car theft isn't just a major felony, it is also a personal invasion. By taking these simple steps you can go a long way to help prevent the virulent disease of auto theft, and by doing that you'll give yourself more peace of mind and save us all some money.

Auto Theft

Here today. Gone today. To a car thief, time is money, and we mean big money. The old saying is that crime doesn't pay, but that doesn't seem the case when it comes to car theft. It's a big business. So big, in fact, that if it were legalized and incorporated, it would rank 56th among Fortune 500 companies.

Another common motivation to steal a car is simply to sell it again, in the same way that any stolen property is "fenced" illegally. Often thieves will hustle the vehicle across state lines where its identification numbers are altered to match forged or fraudulently obtained titles and registration papers. Another common ploy is to ship the stolen vehicles overseas. Often a vehicle stolen in a port city will be in a shipping container ready to be sent overseas within hours of its theft.

A frightening new trend in car theft is often referred to as "cars for crack." The typical scenario goes like this: a drug buyer will lend his vehicle to a crack dealer in exchange for drugs. The drug dealer, in turn, uses the vehicle to transport drugs or commit other crimes with no threat of having to forfeit his own car if he's caught. If the drug dealer does not return the car or the car is seized by law enforcement, the drug buyer who lent the car reports the car as stolen to his insurance company. The insurance company then settles the claim, putting more potential drug money in the hands of the buyer. If the car is returned, the process simply repeats itself.

Another type of car theft was spawned by the increasing prevalence of automobile leasing. In this scenario, usually referred to as a "give up," the owner or lessee is actually quite willing to have the vehicle stolen. Why? Because it typically involves either leased vehicles with excess mileage whose turn-in costs are high or purchased vehicles whose owners no longer desire to make the monthly payments.

In these instances the owner actually arranges to have the vehicle stolen or simply abandons it in a known high-crime area. In some cases, the owner/lessee may simply hide the vehicle and report it stolen to the police and insurance company. Sometimes, to ensure that the car is a write-off, the owner may actually burn the vehicle to make certain it is a total loss. These cases begin as car theft, but also involve another felony -- insurance fraud.

Back in the Fifties and Sixties many juveniles would steal cars just to have wheels. These joyriders often abandoned the cars soon after the theft without doing much damage to the vehicle. With the growth of juvenile gangs in many areas in the last couple of decades, joyriding has taken a sinister turn. Today many cars stolen by teens are "fenced" or "chopped" by others associated with the gang. They may also become part of the "cars for crack" scenario or be used in the commission of other crimes.

A final motivation for car theft is truly a product of our Information Age. Your car can be "stolen," while you continue to drive it. Here's how it works:

Just like you have an established identity, so does your car. You establish and verify your ID by your Social Security number and your Driver's License number. A car establishes and verifies its ID by its unique Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). If a thief gets hold of your vehicle registration and insurance card, items typically stowed in the glove compartment, a criminal can use that information to obtain a license plate. The thief can then steal a similar vehicle, alter its VIN to match your vehicle's VIN, and feel confident in his ability to sell the vehicle without detection. The result is a big payday for the criminal and a huge headache for you, especially if the cloned vehicle is used in a crime or involved in an accident.

Despite the installation of alarm, theft-prevention and theft-recovery systems, no vehicle is immune to theft. But there are many steps you can take to encourage a thief to "steal elsewhere" rather than trying to pinpoint your car. In the next installment of this multi-part feature, we'll tell you what vehicles are most likely to be stolen, and we'll give you several time-proven tips to help you avoid the personal and financial trauma of car theft.

That statistic, though staggering, just takes into account the direct value of the vehicles stolen. Actually, car theft costs us as a society much more. Consider all the indirect costs associated with this crime epidemic.

Because car theft is so prevalent it increases the cost of law enforcement. The price of tracking down, prosecuting and jailing auto thieves takes a sizable bite out of local and state government budgets each year. Auto thefts also are a key factor in bumping up insurance premiums, and the cost is compounded when theft is accompanied by insurance fraud, as it very often is these days. If we could eliminate or severely curtail these two crimes, it would go a long way toward keeping everybody's car insurance costs down.

Of course, there are the costs of other, related crimes. Car thefts almost always result in the theft of personal property left in the vehicles. Not only does this engender a cost in and of itself, it also creates opportunities for other crimes. Many auto thieves emerge with items like checkbooks, bank deposit slips, credit cards and credit card receipts that can enable criminals to commit credit card and bank fraud.

The human price paid to car thieves is also large. Each year scores of car thefts result in murder and kidnapping. The evening news is filled with tales of car thieves driving off with their victims' small children still strapped into baby seats.

Recent efforts of law enforcement working in tandem with insurance companies in states like Pennsylvania, which created a governmental authority to deal with the problem, has put a dent in car theft, but the problem is still a gigantic one that has the potential to strike anyone of us who drives at any moment.

Car thieves have a variety of motivations. The most common ploy of the professional criminal is to steal vehicles in order to obtain the parts. Selling the parts of a car individually may bring a criminal two or three times what he could get selling the vehicle intact. Most often thieves collude with other criminals to set up "chop shops" that can strip a car down to its component parts in a matter of minutes. These parts go into the legendary, clandestine "Midnight Auto Parts" network that services shady repair shops and individual mechanics who are eager to purchase the stolen parts at a discount.