Auto theft has new faces, but old crime still big trouble
Most Expensive Property Crime
New Target: Air Bags
Information Systems Upgraded
Federal Law Major Weapon
Devices Slow Down Thief
The police sergeant saw the stolen white Buick just ahead, but the driver saw him too. The stolen auto rammed the police car and sped off. Later, another officer tried to block the Buick; it jumped the curb and traveled 100 feet along a sidewalk before a third officer successfully blocked the stolen car.
Who was this daredevil driver? A veteran car thief with a stuntman background?
Hardly. It was a 12-year-old boy in the sixth grade. The car he took had already been stolen by someone else and abandoned, but plenty of pre-adolescent boys know how to break into a car, start it without a key, and drive off.
"Don't call car thieves joy riders in front of me," a Newark, N.J., police officer said to The New York Times in discussing the case just described. "Because there's nothing joyful about a 12-year-old kid driving two tons of steel through a crowd of innocent people."
A few hundred miles to the south, a Maryland woman lost her car -- and her life -- as the victim of a particularly vicious form of car theft; police say "armed robbery" is a more accurate description. It's called carjacking.
Thieves forced this woman from the driver's seat, but she was caught in the seat belt. So they drove off, dragging her one and one-half miles alongside the car before finally stopping to put her small child beside the road.
Public outrage over this tragedy spurred Congress to pass a major anti-car theft bill. But these two new faces of auto theft -pre-teens as thieves and vehicle theft through intimidation -represent but two new ways to commit a crime that's been going on since Henry Ford unveiled his horseless carriage.
Most expensive property crime
Although it declined considerably during the 1990s, motor vehicle theft is still the most expensive property crime in the United States.
In 2000, according to the FBI, thieves stole about 1.165 million vehicles with a total value of $7.8 billion, up from 1.147 vehicles worth $7.0 billion in 1999. By comparison, in 1991 there were about 1.7 million vehicles stolen with a total value of $8.3 billion.
While it does occur in rural areas, car theft is primarily an urban problem. An early 2001 study by the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB®) showed that the top five metropolitan areas for vehicle theft rates are Phoenix, Miami, Detroit, Jersey City, N.J., and Tacoma, Wash. But while residents of rural states may feel relatively safe from car thieves, no place - and no car - is immune.
Theft of vehicles has become a big business. A 1995 study by the NICB® found that in 1970, about 75 percent of stolen vehicles were used for transportation - in other words, joy rides -- and that most were recovered soon afterward.
But by 1994, the picture had changed radically. Only 18 percent of recovered stolen cars had no apparent damage, indicating they may have been used only for transportation.Of the rest, 31 percent had been stripped; 31 percent were vandalized or had missing parts; 16 percent were wrecked; and 4 percent were burned or flooded.
This illustrates the fact that most cars today are stolen by people who are in the theft game for money. Because the parts of a car are worth more collectively than an intact car, many stolen cars are delivered to chop shops. These shops specialize in stripping cars, disposing of identifiable parts and selling others through a national network. Chop shops can meet the demand for parts more quickly and, typically, more cheaply than legitimate parts dealers.
New target air bags
Thieves have long targeted specific car parts such as radios and wheel covers, but in recent years they've developed a black market for an increasingly prominent safety device -- the air bag. Whenever an air bag deploys in a crash, it must be replaced. A thief can steal an air bag and sell it at a low price -- say, $200 -- to an unethical repair-shop owner, who then charges the customer the standard price for a replacement bag - maybe $1,000 or more - and makes a sizable profit. The NICB® estimates 50,000 air bags valued at about $50 million are stolen each year. State Farm estimates that when all cars have air bags, theft of the devices could cost insurance companies and their customers between $127 million and $253 million a year. State Farm is working with automakers and air bag suppliers to find solutions to the theft problem.
Some cars are stolen to order -- the thief looks for a specific make and model (maybe even color) and delivers it to a confederate who sells it.
In recent years, the export trade has become a major factor in vehicle theft. The NICB® estimates that about 200,000 stolen vehicles (about 1 of every 6) are illegally exported -- shipped overseas or driven across state and international borders. Newer, more expensive vehicles such as luxury sedans and utility vehicles are the most likely targets. Luxury cars often are resold in many countries for up to four times their U.S. value, the NICB® says.
The export trade explains why two-thirds of the top 25 metropolitan areas with the highest theft rates have direct ties to international export areas, such as ports or nearby borders, according to the NICB®.
Generally, top-selling vehicles such as the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry lead the theft list in terms of sheer numbers. But the NICB® says nearly one-third of the top 50 most commonly stolen vehicles in 1999 were sport-utility vehicles, pickup trucks and minivans. From an insurance standpoint, some luxury cars such as Mercedes and BMWs are among those with the highest overall losses, according to the Highway loss Data Institute. While newer cars may be stolen with the idea of re-selling them, the NICB® says thieves target older cars because of their parts' value.
Carjacking - part armed robbery, part car theft -- has gained national attention in recent years as a particularly ugly, frightening crime. Thieves, usually wielding a weapon, approach motorists on ramps, in parking lots or at stoplights, forcing them out of their vehicles and then driving off. Sometimes the motorist is injured, or even killed. The motives of some carjackers are the same as those of other auto thieves -- steal a car to sell intact or for a chop shop. Others act as part of gang activities or to get a car to help them commit other crimes. About 49,000 carjackings are attempted each year and about half are successful, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
But when a car is reported stolen, the criminal isn't necessarily a thief preying on an innocent owner. The NICB®, which investigates car thefts and helps insurance companies put thieves out of business, points out that some car theft reports are fraudulent. Insurers are targets of several types of schemes:
- Paper cars. The fraud artist obtains insurance on a car that doesn't really exist, then reports it stolen and collects the claim payment. This may be done by, for example, switching the VIN (vehicle identification number) and title from a salvaged or stolen car to a borrowed or rented car long enough to get insurance -- perhaps from several different companies.
- Owner give-up. An unscrupulous owner hires someone to "steal" his car for the parts so the owner can collect the insurance on it. Or the owner may simply abandon the car on the street in hopes it will be stripped or stolen, then report it as a theft to police and the insurer. The owner may fabricate a list of expensive items that were "stolen" with the car -- golf clubs, leather coats, cameras.
Export fraud. After getting a bank loan and buying a vehicle, the owner insures it, exports it, then reports the vehicle stolen to police and the insurance company. Overseas confederates sell the vehicle and forward a share of the proceeds to the original owner.
Title fraud. Many schemes involve car title shenanigans for profit; the owner may or may not participate. For example, a car is stolen and stripped of its parts, then left on the street for police to find. After the insurance claim is settled, the car winds up in a salvage yard, where the thief buys it back, gaining a salvage title.
The thief puts the stripped parts back on the car, then takes it to another state and exchanges the salvage title for a regular car title. Then he sells the car to someone who may not suspect it's been stolen.
The fight against auto theft is hampered by public indifference to the crime and the fact that many in law enforcement view it as a low-priority item.
While the FBI reports that about 53 percent of stolen vehicles were recovered in 2000, only 14 percent of all such thefts were cleared by arrest that year.
Studies have shown that only a small fraction of those arrested for car theft go to prison. Typically, they pay a small fine or are placed on probation for the first one or two offenses. Because of crowding, those who go to jail or prison probably won't be there long.
Some people regard car theft as merely a crime against property that doesn't hurt anyone. But even before carjacking, auto theft was threatening people's safety and breeding more crime. Crashes involving stolen vehicles take lives and cause numerous injuries each year. Stolen cars often are used to commit other crimes -- to transport drugs or as a getaway vehicle for a robbery, for example.
Others figure that because insurance pays for stolen cars, no one is hurt financially. But people who buy insurance foot the bill for car theft losses -- whether they have claims or not. Theft accounts for a sizable part of the comprehensive coverage premium. Those who live in high-theft areas pay more for their insurance than those who don't.
Despite some of the discouraging facts about car theft and attitudes toward it, considerable progress is being made by the insurance industry, law enforcement, auto manufacturers and others in efforts to thwart it.
The NICB® -- formed in 1992 by merging the National Automobile Theft Bureau and the Insurance Crime Prevention Institute -- has professional agents who investigate thefts reported by member insurance companies. They're especially alert for patterns that may indicate an organized theft ring is at work. They work with law enforcement authorities to help bring about the arrest and conviction of thieves.
Information systems upgraded
Theft data shared
The agency shares data on theft with the Insurance Services Office, which has combined data from several sources into an all-claims database accessible to insurers. Among other things, it allows detection of cars that have undergone VIN switching to conceal theft and whether salvage cars have been used for that purpose.
Insurance companies, law enforcement people and others have joined forces to fight auto theft in some states. The most successful effort has been in Michigan, which in the mid-1980s had the highest car theft rate in the nation.
An antitheft committee set up a program funded by a $1 charge on each auto insurance policy written in the state. Grants for preventing auto theft, catching thieves and convicting them began going to law enforcement agencies and community groups.
Between 1985, when the program began, and 1991, auto thefts in Michigan dropped 16 percent, while they were going up 50 percent nationally. Programs modeled after Michigan's have been launched in several other states.
Federal law major weapon
A major weapon in the fight against auto theft is the Anti-Car Theft Act of 1992, which includes a number of measures aimed at making cars harder to steal and thieves more likely to get punished.The law gradually extends to all passenger cars and certain high-theft, multi-purpose vehicles a requirement that certain parts be marked with vehicle identification numbers to discourage chop-shop activity. It also (1) requires body shop workers to check before installing such parts to make sure they aren't stolen, and (2) sets up a title information system aimed at making it tougher for a thief to steal a car in one state and get a new title for it in another. The federal penalty for armed carjacking is raised to up to 25 years in prison if serious injury occurs and life in prison if death results.
The law also increases penalties for car theft and operating a chop shop; provides grants to states to create anti-car theft committees; and requires customs officials to step up enforcement of laws prohibiting the export of stolen vehicles.
Some progress has been made in preventing auto theft by making cars more theftproof.
For years, cars made by General Motors Corp. were noted for being easy to steal, mainly because of weak steering columns that permitted thieves to get at the starting mechanism quickly. GM has taken steps to strengthen these columns and make cars harder to steal through a system designed to thwart starting a car without the proper key. Theft rates for some of these cars have dropped.Several other manufacturers - including Ford Motor Co., BMW and Mercedes - have installed similar passive immobilizer systems on some or all of their models. In some cases, dramatic reductions in theft have been reported.
Possibly in part because of such antitheft devices, thieves in some areas appear to have found a new tool -- tow trucks. "Rogue" tow truck operators have become a particular problem in Washington, D.C., and in Detroit, where police estimate they lift about 20 percent of all stolen cars and sell them for scrap or parts.
Devices slow down thief
More motorists, especially those living in high-theft areas, are putting antitheft devices on their cars. They include steering wheel locks, car alarms, kill switches (hidden switches that must be activated for the car to start), electronic tracking devices, steering wheel armored collars, tire locks and etching of the VIN onto the window and other car parts.
In general, while none of these devices is foolproof, all can be effective in slowing down the thief and increasing his chances of being caught. Most effective are "passive" devices that begin operating automatically when the ignition key is turned off, as opposed to "active" devices that require some action on the driver's part to arm or disarm the system.
There are several simple steps you, the car owner, can take to reduce the chances your car will be stolen:
- Always lock your car.
- Park with the front wheels turned sharply to the curb, making it tough for thieves to tow your car.
- Park in a well-lighted area.
- Put all packages out of sight.
- If you park in a commercial lot or garage, leave only the ignition key with the attendant.
- If you have a garage at home, lock both the vehicle and the garage.
And here are some ways to lower your chances of being a carjacking victim:
- Avoid dark, isolated areas. If someone is near your parked car, keep walking.
- Lock your doors and roll up your windows.
- If a suspicious person approaches your car, drive away.
- While driving, stay in the next-to-center lane; don't get blocked into the curb lane.
- If another driver bumps your car or your tire goes flat, keep your windows closed and wait for police to arrive, or drive slowly to the nearest police station. If you have a cellular phone or citizens band radio, use it.
- If confronted, don't resist.