Car Thefts in U.S. Surge

CarTheft_3.2.jpg illustration by Paul Dolan

CARS.COM — Despite continued declines in every other category of property crime — including property crime overall — auto theft has defied its statistical peers by surging. According to the latest FBI figures, in the first six months of 2016, auto theft spiked nearly 7 percent compared with the same period the year before. For the entire year of 2015, auto theft increased more than 3 percent.

Related: Amid National Auto Theft Uptick, West Isn’t Best

The 2016 increase was the second time the auto-theft rate has gone up since 2012, when it edged up 1.7 percent from January to June compared to the same period a year earlier. The theft rate dipped 3.2 percent in 2013 and 5.7 percent in 2014, rebounding for a 1 percent increase in the first half of 2015. During those same six-month timeframes from 2013 to 2016, property crimes combined — including burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft and arson — decreased by an average of 4.4 percent per year, with car theft the only crime logging a plus instead of a minus.

That pattern was consistent on a regional level, where overall property crime and individual property crimes by and large decreased in the first half of 2016, save for auto theft, which increased in every part of the country. The West was worst, with an 11.3 percent spike, followed by the South in a distant second place with 4.1 percent, the Midwest with 2.6 percent and the Northeast with 0.1 percent.

The total number of car thefts in 2015, 707,758, was the most since 2012, when the figure surpassed 723,000. If the percentage increase from January to June 2016 holds for the whole year, we could see the year’s total exceeding 754,000 thefts, which would be the most since 2009.

Here’s how auto theft changed during the first half of 2016 in the nation’s five largest cities (total number of thefts followed by percent change):

1. New York; 2,948; -12 percent
2. Los Angeles; 9,013; +23 percent
3. Chicago; 5,207; +9 percent
4. Houston; 6,380; -4 percent
5. Philadelphia; 2,616; +7 percent

As we’ve previously reported, these annual upticks in auto theft come amid decades of plummeting general crime stats — despite a 5 percent increase in violent crimes, as well, in the first half of 2016 — and auto theft in particular. Car theft has seen annual reductions in 14 of the past 20 years, according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report.

So what’s happening? For years, anti-theft advancements in car technology have made vehicles all but impossible to steal. Yet the Illinois-based National Insurance Crime Bureau, which tracks and investigates auto theft, has been warning of a comeback as thieves find more innovative ways to swipe cars. The latest threat is the so-called “mystery device,” also known as “relay attack units,” which intercept the signal from the fob of a car with keyless entry and push-button start, then enable thieves to start the targeted car and drive away.

We’ll post the full-year figures for 2016 auto theft once they’re reported. In the meantime, all you can do as a car owner is take common-sense precautions to protect your vehicle — starting with not leaving your keys in the car, the incidence of which increased by 22 percent in 2015. Here are some other tips:

  • Always lock your car.
  • Invest in a car alarm and use it.
  • Never leave the car unlocked and running while unattended.
  • Never leave the garage-door opener in the car.
  • Take a photo of your car’s registration on your smartphone and avoid leaving such document or other personal info in the vehicle.

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