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Clever ways you can out-smart a car thief

Vehicles may be getting harder to steal because of advances in technology, but it’s often the most basic things drivers do — or don’t do — that entice carjackers. Here are some ways you can out-smart a car thief.
It’s easy to out-smart a car thief.
It’s easy to out-smart a car thief.LoJack
/ Source: Forbes Autos

Thieves targeted Charlotte and Stevan Arbona’s car three times.

Twice, their Honda Accord had the air bags stolen out of it right in front of their Brooklyn home. The thieves broke a back window to get access each time. “As soon as we got the air bags replaced, they came back,” Charlotte says.

The third time, the whole car was stolen, only to be recovered a few blocks away sans air bags and with some other minor damage. The Arbonas invested in a parking garage after that.

A car is stolen every 25.5 seconds in the U.S., according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which works with insurance companies to prevent auto theft and insurance fraud.

In 2005, there were 1,235,226 motor vehicle thefts, which is 2,625 less than in 2004, NICB data indicates. (Data for 2006 will not be available until later this fall, the organization said.)

Although that is only a slight drop — less than 1 percent — the number of cars stolen each year has been trending down for a decade.

“It began to drop in 1996 when we started using computer engineered controls,” says Robert Sinclair, spokesperson for AAA New York (formerly called the American Automobile Association). “It wasn’t as easy to hotwire a car.”

Vehicles may be getting harder to steal because of advances in technology, but it’s often the most basic things drivers do — or don’t do — that entice carjackers.

For instance, leaving a window cracked open on a parked car — even the tiniest bit — is like a flashing neon sign that says “steal this car,” according to Michigan’s Help Eliminate Auto Theft program, or HEAT.

Leaving an unoccupied car running at a convenience store, gas station, or automated teller machine is another bad idea. Thieves stake out these locations, waiting for such opportunities, according to the Department of Transportation’s Automobile Burglary and Theft Prevention Authority, or ABTPA.

Statistics from the NICB indicate that 62.1 percent of the vehicles stolen in 2005 were ultimately recovered. The reason so many are never found is that they are often exported to other countries or broken down in chop shops for their parts, the NICB says.

However, there are some ways to improve the chances of recovery. Programs offered by car manufacturers — including General Motor’s OnStar and BMW Assist — connect drivers by satellite to an operations center that can help with everything from remotely unlocking car doors to calling emergency help to the scene of an accident.

In OnStar’s case, after filing a police report for a stolen vehicle, drivers dial a toll-free number and alert OnStar to track the vehicle, says Rebecca White, a spokeswoman for OnStar Communications. OnStar then works with law enforcement to help recover it.

OnStar gets about 700 requests a month to assist with locating a stolen vehicle, White says. (She would not discuss its success rate because, she said, law-enforcement agencies do not always notify OnStar when a vehicle is found.)

Government anti-theft programs such as Watch Your Car also offer helpful deterrents. The Watch Your Car program provides decals indicating that a car is not normally driven between the hours of 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. When police see a car with one of the decals during those hours, they pull it over and find out whether the driver is authorized to be using it.

Another decal alerts law enforcement that a vehicle is not normally driven near international land borders and shipping ports.

A VIN Etching Program also allows owners to have vehicle identification numbers acid-etched on the windows, which makes it much more difficult for thieves to resell the vehicle or use it for parts.

It’s been ten years since the Arbonas had an incident with car thieves. They think switching to a different car brand helped, and they might be right. The Honda Accord ranked as the most stolen vehicle in the country in 2005, according to the NICB.

So what kind of car are the Arbonas driving around now? “We decided not to get another Honda,” Charlotte says. “We now have a Volvo V70 that we park on the street and it’s been fine. We haven’t had any problems. We figured no one would steal a Volvo station wagon for a joyride.”

Our list of tips to help prevent auto theft was compiled from multiple sources, including HEAT, the NICB, and the ABTPA. Click on the “Slide show” link above to see the full list.