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Your junker — better make sure you lock it

A flashy new car with all the bells and whistles parks next to a beaten-up, 20-year-old clunker. Which one is more attractive to a car thief? Guess again.
Image: 1995 Honda Civic
Don't steal me because I'm not beautiful. The 1995 Honda Civic was the most-stolen vehicle in the U.S. in 1997.Ffrreeaakk
/ Source: Forbes

A flashy new car with all the bells and whistles parks next to a beaten-up, 20-year-old clunker. Which one is more attractive to a car thief? Guess again.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau today released its Hot Wheels 2008 auto theft report for vehicles stolen in 2007, and similar to previous years, thieves preferred to steal older-model vehicles. The top 10 most stolen vehicles in 2007 included 20-year-old models like the 1988 Toyota pickup (No.9), as well as some other oldies, such as the two Hondas that topped the list: the 1995 Civic (No. 1) and the 1991 Accord (No.2).

What may be a piece of junk to you — and to the insurance company — is pure treasure to professional car thieves. The car itself isn't worth much, but the seats, sound system, airbags and other parts, each sold individually, are worth a lot on the black market, says Jack Nerad, executive editorial director and executive market analyst at Kelly Blue Books. Believe it or not, at the moment car thieves can make better, faster cash from the banal, not the bling.

"Parts of new cars are not as desired as older models. Look at this as like a wish list of professional car thieves," says Nerad. "Organized gangs, and there are a lot of them, are pretty methodical about what they want to steal."

Despite some newer models finding their way onto the list as well, such as the 2007 Toyota Corolla (No.10) and the 2004 Dodge Ram pickup (No. 7), the FBI's preliminary Uniform Crime Report data reveal that overall motor vehicle theft may have declined 8.9 percent in 2007 compared with 2006. The final data will be released later this year.

Sweatin' for the oldies
The reason older models are ripe for the lifting is that vehicles that were hot sellers as new cars a few years ago now need replacement parts — especially Ford's F150 and GM's Chevy C/K 1500 pickups, both popular selling trucks in the 1990s. Parts and components such as catalytic converters and other engine components are in great demand since some automakers, like Honda, use parts that will fit various models, says Brian Gluckman, an auto analyst at So engine parts in a Civic will fit several Civic models as well as Accords — this makes those cars that much more worth stealing.

"When your 20-year-old car needs a replacement part, the service technician is looking for the cheapest part available," says Gluckman. Where your technician gets the part is usually of little interest to most owners — they just want the car fixed as cheaply as possible.

So don't think for a moment that your old but tired vehicle matters only to you. Your clunker is cash money to professional thieves.

Where not to park
Of course, there are certain measures you can take to prevent your car from being stolen, such as installing an alarm, a steering-column collar, wheel locks or immobilizing devices like kill switches and fuel-pump disablers that prevent thieves from moving your car to a location where he or she can strip out the parts. But what it really comes down to is the odds, and owning a model popular among thieves in cities where they thrive.

The NICB tracks metropolitan statistical areas for vehicle theft rates. The rate is determined by the number of vehicle theft offenses per 100,000 inhabitants using the 2007 U.S. Census Population estimates, the most current figures available.

The good news is, if you live on the east coast, there are no cities in the top 10. That's not to say you should leave your keys in the ignition and the doors unlocked, but you're at an advantage since California, Arizona and New Mexico are the hot spots for thieves. This is probably because they steal old cars and cross the border to sell vehicles or parts to buyers in Mexico, says Nerad.

Four of the top 10 hot spots for auto thefts are in California, with all four of those in the top five. Modesto, Calif., ranks at No. 1, with San Diego/Carlsbad/San Marcos, Calif., in the third spot; Stockton, Calif., in fourth; and San Francisco/Oakland/Fremont, Calif., in fifth place. The city in third place, the only one in the top five not in California, is Las Vegas/Paradise.

Although auto thefts, in general, may be on the decline, thieves will continue to change their game as different models' parts come into high demand. So if you are thinking about buying used instead of new because thieves might find your ride less appealing, think again. Your old car may be worth more to a thief than a sparkling new one.