Face-Palm! Auto-Theft Uptick Attributed to Owners Leaving Keys in Car

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Auto theft has been on the decline for decades — sharply since 2003 — amid vehicle security systems making it all but impossible to steal a newer car through traditional methods. Perhaps the greatest single theft-prevention measure has been the keyless access fob, which rendered the ol’ screwdriver-in-the-ignition trick as out of date as an Ed Hardy T-shirt. But here’s one important note to owners hoping to keep their ride safe: The fob is only an effective anti-theft device if you don’t leave it in the car.

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If stats on one of the silliest sounding car-crime categories are any indication, the message doesn’t seem to be sinking in: “Theft by key” is a thing, and it’s only getting worse.

According to a just-released report from the National Insurance Crime Bureau, during the three-year period from Jan. 1, 2016, through Dec. 31, 2018, thieves nationwide stole an average of 209 vehicles a day because drivers left their keys or fobs in the car. That added up to more than 229,000 such thefts, up a whopping 56 percent since the same study from 2013-15. On an annual basis, theft by key increased 88 percent between 2013 and 2018.

These incidents have a visible impact on overall auto-theft figures. When the U.S. saw an uptick in cars stolen in 2016, NICB noted that when the 69,000-plus theft-by-key incidents are subtracted, the nearly 58,000-theft increase would’ve been wiped out — and then some.

“Had those complacency thefts not occurred, 2016 would have posted a decrease rather than an increase in annual vehicle thefts,” NICB said in its report.

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The good news in all this? The problem is eminently easy to fix on an individual level: Take your keys and fobs when you leave the car. It’s really that simple. And if you can manage, maybe consider locking the car, too, for additional security.

Here are three more recommendations the NICB offers to guard against car-related crime:

  • Don’t leave your garage door opener in the car.
  • Don’t leave your registration and other personal documents in the vehicle; instead, take a photo of your registration on your smartphone.
  • Never leave a car unlocked and running to warm it up, or, say, while stopping for a quick cup of coffee. It takes just a moment for a thief to jump in and drive off.’s Editorial department is your source for automotive news and reviews. In line with’s long-standing ethics policy, editors and reviewers don’t accept gifts or free trips from automakers. The Editorial department is independent of’s advertising, sales and sponsored content departments.

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Former Assistant Managing Editor-News Matt Schmitz is a veteran Chicago journalist indulging his curiosity for all things auto while helping to inform car shoppers. Email Matt Schmitz

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