Auto theft is an estimated $7.5 billion business and continues to grow despite a declining theft rate across the USA, according to the FBI. The auto theft rate dropped about 8.4% in 1998, but the value of those cars stolen increased by 11% or $200 million dollars

Auto Theft Frequency

According to the 1996 FBI Uniform Crime Reports, an auto theft occurred every 23 seconds in the United States with nearly 1.4 million vehicles stolen. Auto theft frequency varied according to region, with the Southern States losing 35%, the Western States 28%, the Midwestern States 20%, and the Northeastern States with a 17% auto theft rate. Vehicle thefts rates do not vary drastically from month-to-month, however, January and July seem to have slightly higher crime rates. The lowest percentage of auto thefts occurs in February and April, probably because of fewer days in the month. See the list of Top 25 Stolen Cars in 1997-1999 on this web site.

Auto Theft Rates

Auto theft is largely a big-city crime. See the Top 10 Auto Theft Cities. In 1996, metropolitan areas experienced a vehicle theft rate of 1,223 per 100,000 population compared to a national rate of 526 per capita. Small cities, with less than 10,000 inhabitants, reported a car theft rate of 247 per 100,000 population and rural counties had a rate of only 126 per capita. Obviously, population density makes a difference in the auto theft rate, but the urban reality is that more cars are parked on the street or in open parking lots than in secured personal garages in suburban and rural settings. Also, the urban crush of cars makes it very difficult for the police to identify a recently stolen car from among the thousands of similar looking vehicles in traffic. The police will admit to getting lucky sometimes by recovering a recently stolen car because of a tail-light being out or when the car thief commits a minor traffic violation like speeding or failing to stop at a stop sign.

Auto Theft is Big Business

There are some large organized groups of car thieves that seemingly fill orders for a contract buyer. Some cars are stolen for shipment out of the country, especially to Mexico. Less inspired car thieves often steal cars as a lark or on a dare to joy ride. Some intend to personally drive or sell the stolen car to an associate after disguising the vehicle with new paint, plates, and wheels. Worst yet, your car may be used to commit another crime like an armed robbery or be used for a drive-by shooting. Your stolen car could be involved in a hit and run accident, with injuries, leaving you to explain your alibi and prove that you didn't cause the incident and then filed a false auto theft report to cover it up. Another form of violent vehicle theft is carjacking. See the article on carjacking on this web site.

It's About the Parts

An experienced car thief can steal your car in less than a minute. Many crude thieves simply smash the drivers’ window. Most cars are seemingly stolen for the value of their parts. Some of the most frequently stolen cars were also the most frequently sold cars a few years earlier, leading one to believe that they are being stolen for parts. See the article on the Top 25 Stolen Cars on this web site. According to insurance companies, a $20,000 stolen vehicle can be stripped and sold into $30,000 worth of parts inventory to unscrupulous scrap and auto-body shops. Stolen cars, vans, trucks, and motorcycles cause economic hardship for victims and increase everyone's insurance premiums. The estimated value of motor vehicles stolen nationwide in 1996 was nearly 7.5 billion dollars. Automobiles accounted for 78.3% of the stolen vehicles, 16.5% for trucks and buses, and 5.2% for motorcycles and all others.

Hot Auto Theft Locations

Motor vehicles are stolen from shopping malls, streets, driveways, parking lots, garages, and car dealerships. Automobile theft seems to occur with greater frequency where large groups of cars are parked together for extended periods like at airports, shopping centers, colleges, sporting events, fairgrounds, movie complexes, and large apartment complexes. High-rise and subterranean parking structures seem to have a lower auto theft rate, probably due to a reduced number of escape routes and the possibility of being trapped from above or below ground level. Fee parking lots also experience fewer stolen cars because of having to pass a ticket taker, a pay booth, and sometimes a video camera to enter and exit. Pay booth staff should be trained to inspect and record positive ID (photo drivers’ license, vehicle license number, etc.) from anyone claiming to have lost their parking ticket and attempting to exit the parking lot in a vehicle.

Valet parking seems to be the safest place to temporarily park your car both for the car and yourself. Women traveling alone should take advantage of valet parking at hotels, airports, and special events to avoid making the trek into the parking lot alone, especially at night. As an additional precaution, give only the ignition key to valet attendants and secure any personal documents like your drivers’ license, car registration, and insurance cards that might contain your home address. With enough ID a sophisticated car theft can impersonate you and actually trade or sell your vehicle claiming that they lost the vehicle title papers. The only common risk to valet parking is how safely the parking contractor secures and labels your car key while in their care. Keys should coded for security and be stored in a lock cabinet or drawer and under constant supervision.

Hot Times for Theft

Auto theft occurs at different times of the day, depending on the setting. Car thefts at shopping centers occur mostly during business hours when vehicles are sometimes left unattended for hours. For the auto thief, regional shopping centers are like a smorgasbord, with lots of choices of vehicle models/makes/colors and with a constantly changing inventory. Shopping center employee vehicles are especially at risk because of the length of time the car is exposed and the typical mall policy of requiring retail employees to park in a cluster at the perimeter of the lot. Another example is large apartment complexes that experience more vehicle thefts during the night after residents return home from work and settle in for the evening.

Car Thief Arrest Rates

Law enforcement, admittedly, has been ineffective in preventing auto theft. In 1996, the nationwide auto theft clearance rate was a dismal 14%. More auto crimes are cleared in rural areas, 32%, when compared to big city police departments who only cleared 13% of vehicle thefts. Part of the problem is that auto thefts are not reported sometimes for hours or days after the crime occurred. There are usually no suspects, descriptions, eyewitnesses, or other helpful leads to investigate. If the stolen vehicles are not recovered within a few days the chances are slim that your vehicle will be found intact, if at all.

In 1996, an estimated 175,400 were arrested in the United States for auto theft. Young males were responsible for 86% of the vehicle thefts. Of those arrested for auto theft, 59% were under 21 years of age, with 42% of those being under 18 years old. Curfew laws have had some minor impact on late night auto thefts in some areas. Shopping center security patrols try to be highly visible and watch for young males who appear to be scanning the parking lot for a vehicle to steal. Parking lots try to limit easy escape routes and limit barriers that reduce visibility.

A few common sense steps can help you reduce becoming a victim of auto theft:

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