Auto Theft Evolves As Cars Get Harder to Steal

Best of luck to you if your occupation is stealing cars and you're headed out for your shift tonight with a slim jim and a screwdriver. Chances are if you're able to boost a car at all, it's going to be an older, less valuable one.

Related: It Took Eight Days for Our New Honda Fit to Get Its Wheels Stolen

New anti-theft technologies such as immobilizers, smart keys and location tracking are making modern cars too difficult to swipe, and that has simply stolen auto thieves' thunder. As a result, the incidence of vehicle theft nationally has taken a dive during the past decade, which is why you still see cars like the Acura Integra — last available new in the U.S. during President George W. Bush's inaugural year in the White House — repeatedly named among the most-stolen cars in the nation each year. Older cars, which lack today's advanced technologies, are easier to make off with.

Component Theft on the Rise

But a car thief's still gotta eat. So what do you do? Make like Johnny Cash and "get it once piece at a time." That's according to information from Terri Miller, executive director of Michigan-based prevention advocacy group Help Eliminate Auto Thefts.

"We hear all this good news about auto theft being down in Michigan, but unfortunately, what's replaced that is component theft," Miller told the National Insurance Crime Bureau, the Des Plaines, Ill.-based crime-stats provider. "Because it's harder to steal an entire vehicle these days, they're stealing the parts. The tires and rims are not marked and they're very, very marketable."

According to an NICB report, someone stealing tires or rims may be paid $150 to $400 for their work, while the middle man who buys the pilfered components then sells them to a small tire dealer or collision repair shop for $700 to $900. That shop may then install those same components on a car and bill the owner's insurance company $1,200 to $1,300. Meanwhile, the insurance company conceivably could have already paid out a claim on those same stolen components to the original owner.

Auto Theft Way Down

As with all categories of crime, auto theft has plummeted during the past quarter century, and continues to do so. According to the FBI's Unified Crime Report for 2013 — the most recent full year of available data culled from law-enforcement agencies across the nation — there were 699,594 motor vehicle thefts in the U.S. that year. That was a 3 percent dip compared with 2012, a 12 percent dip from 2009 and a whopping 44 percent dip compared with 2004. Vehicle thefts in 2013 totaled $4 billion in losses, compared with nearly $8 billion in 2004. Preliminary numbers for the first half of 2014 show an additional 6 percent drop compared with the same period a year earlier.

Theft from motor vehicles has also declined over time, though not at the rate of whole-vehicle theft. Of the more than 6 million larceny-theft incidents overall (a nearly 20 percent decline since 2004), the specific categories of thefts from motor vehicles and thefts of motor vehicle accessories account for 23 percent and 7 percent, respectively. That's compared with 2004, when there were only about 950,000 more incidents overall, and thefts of accessories and other items from motor vehicles occurred in comparable proportions, 25 percent and 11 percent, respectively.

So as thefts from motor vehicles don't seem to have dropped off over the past decade at quite the same rate as whole-vehicle thefts, and as police observe recent spikes in accessory theft, law-enforcement officials recommend vehicle owners take some measures of their own.

"I encourage people to put some kind of identifying mark on their tires and rims," Detective Lt. Ray Collins of the Michigan State Police Southeast Auto Theft Team told the NICB. "If they report them stolen, we may be able to tie them back to the victims if we recover them."

Smart Keys and Smart Thieves

Authorities say manufacturers are working on technologies to help track stolen car parts, though nothing is on the immediate horizon. But as anti-theft measures become more sophisticated, so inevitably do criminals. LoJack, a leader in vehicle-recovery technologies, warns of an evolving approach to theft in the connected-car era, where criminals illegally acquire and copy smart keys, use GPS and manufactured keys to target rental vehicles, and use identity theft to finance vehicle purchases.

"Although numbers show a decline in theft, the impact that today's connected vehicle thief has on individuals and businesses that fall victim to them is much greater," Patrick Clancy, a LoJack spokesman, said in a statement. "We rely on our vehicles for much more than just transportation. Today, our vehicles hold critical information such as our phone contacts, registration and insurance details, even the address and directions to our home.

"Vehicles are truly an extension of our connected self and without it, we are less productive and informed and risk becoming exposed to the outside world."

 

More From Cars.com