By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 7/18/2007 6:10:47 PM ET 2007-07-18T22:10:47

Vehicle theft is a huge problem in this country. Despite a variety of improved anti-theft devices, more than 1.2 million cars and trucks – worth more than $7.6 billion – are stolen each year. That means a car, SUV, or light truck is stolen every 25.5 seconds, according to the 2005 data (the last year for which figures are available).

Summertime is prime time for car thieves. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau vehicle thefts soar in July and August.

If your car is stolen, there is about a 60 percent chance it will be recovered – although it could be missing a lot of parts. Tracking devices, such as OnStar and LoJack don’t prevent thefts, but they do help police locate the vehicle once it’s gone.

NOTE: In the time it took you to read to this point in my column, another vehicle was snatched somewhere in the country.

And let’s not forget motorcycles. As bikes have grown in popularity, thefts have skyrocketed, up 135 percent from 2000 to 2005. NICB says more than 70,000 motorcycles were stolen in 2005 for a loss of more than $400 million.  

For motorcycles, the recovery rate is only 25 to 30 percent. NICB says that’s because it’s so easy for the thief to alter, reuse or camouflage stolen bike parts and frames.

Who is doing this?
It is easy to assume that the thieves are teenagers, just wanting to take a joy ride. And that does happen. But the NICB says most of the heists are done by professionals, members of organized crime rings.

Some stolen vehicles are sold to unsuspecting buyers. Others are sold outside the country. Most are stolen to be torn apart for parts.

“You can steal a motor vehicle and bring it to a chop shop that can dismantle it in about 30 minutes,” says Richard Murphy, a senior special agent with the NICB. Those parts are worth three to four times as much as the vehicle.

That’s why professional thieves target older model Hondas and Toyotas. There are so many of them on the road, there’s a big demand for replacement parts.

Let’s not blame the victim, but …
“The motoring pubic has some bad habits that make them easy targets,” Murphy says, “because they don’t think anything will happen to them.”

A new survey done for the NICB and LoJack shows just how careless we have become.

One-third of the drivers questioned say they have left their car running while unattended. More than a third (38 percent) say they don’t always hide valuables when they park the car. 

And the things they leave in plain sight – mail, a wallet or purse, and bank statements – are just what a thief wants; especially one looking for personal information to commit identity theft.

Let’s be honest. If a crook really wants your vehicle, he’s going to get it. Even a loud alarm and a steering wheel lock won’t stop a determined pro.

“There’s nothing that can’t be defeated,” says Robert Painter, an auto-theft investigator and author of Auto Theft: Let the Truth Be Known. The best you can do, Painter says, is to make your vehicle a less tempting target and more inconvenient to steal than another vehicle parked nearby.

Don’t leave any valuables or a spare key inside. Some manufacturers put a spare key in the glove compartment or the owner’s manual. Look for that spare key and get it out of the car.

Use a variety of anti-theft devices to make your vehicle more of a challenge to a would-be thief, whether amateur or professional.

“You want to cost him time. That’s a thief’s worst problem – time,” Painter says. “If he tries to get the car running and he can’t, he’s not going to screw around and stay there. He’s going to go to the next car.”

You do that by having layers of protection. These would include an alarm, visible steering wheel locking device, and hidden “kill switch” that keeps the engine from being hot-wired.

The Highway Data Loss Institute says one of the best deterrents you can have is a factory-installed engine immobilizer, a system that won’t let the car start without the proper key. “We’ve found that typically they reduce insurance losses by 50 percent,” says institute spokesman Russ Rader.

These immobilizers are now standard on many models and are optional on many others.

To combat vehicle theft, Canada will require all new cars, vans, SUVs, and light trucks built after Sept. 1 to have immobilizers. On that date, the province of Manitoba will also require owners of vehicles considered most at risk for theft to install immobilizers before they can renew their registration and insurance. Manitoba Public Insurance will provide the device and help pay for the installation.

The bottom line
No matter what you do to that vehicle, you are not going to make it completely secure. Windows can be smashed, locks can be popped, and electronic keys can be cloned. Of course, any vehicle can be towed.

“You can steal or move a car with a tow truck with a wheel lift in less than a minute,” Painter says. “I have it on video. And there is nothing you can do to prevent that.”

That’s why you never leave anything of value in your car. When you come back, your wallet, MP3 player, portable GPS device, even your car, may not be there.

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