For all its sunny charms, California can be a tough place to live.
According to national crime data, its average 187 crimes per square mile are far above the national median of 49.6, and its property crime rate of almost 36 crimes per every 1,000 people soundly beats the national rate of 34. Californians have a 1 in 178 chance of becoming a victim of a violent crime.
Drivers don't fare much better. The rate of motor vehicle theft in California is almost twice the national average, according to Location Inc., a Massachusetts-based firm that provides relocation software and real estate investment advice. And according to a new report from the National Insurance Crime Bureau, it's getting worse.
Eight of the top 10 cities for auto theft nationwide are in the Golden State, up from six cities last year. Sacramento, Stockton and Bakersfield are among the worst.
For this list of the worst cities for auto theft, we used data for 2010 compiled by NICB, a Des Plaines, Ill.-based nonprofit organization devoted to preventing vehicle theft and insurance fraud. The NICB uses U.S. Census Bureau population estimates and ZIP code data matched with theft records for metropolitan statistical areas. The end result is calculated on a scale of thefts per 100,000 people.
All of the cities on our list, from Fresno (No.1 with a theft rate of 812.40 per 100,000) to Yakima (No. 10 with a theft rate of 520.49), had much more frequent instances of theft than the cities at the bottom. Elmira, N.Y., for example, has an auto-theft rate of just 37.15 per 100,000 — that translates into just 33 cars stolen there last year. For the second year in a row, State College, Pa., had the lowest rate of auto theft in the nation, with just 29.87 thefts per 100,000 people.
One interesting note: No cities east of the Rocky Mountains made this year's list. Laredo, Texas, which topped it last year, ranks No. 11; Albuquerque, N.M., and Las Vegas also dropped off from 2010 to 2011. Washington State saw shifts as well: Spokane moved up 14 spots to No. 4 this year, while the south-central town of Yakima dropped back 4 spots to No. 10.
Why is California the big offender? There's no one reason, says Frank Scafidi, a spokesman for the NICB, but a large population with a high rate of vehicle ownership is a contributing factor.
Its border towns and centrally located cities like Stockton, Calif., are nodes for traffickers moving narcotics, money and weapons. According to the 2010 FBI Crime Report, Sacramento, Oakland and Stockton had some of the highest violent crime rates in the country last year. (Violent crime does not include motor vehicle theft.) Vegas and Stockton have also been identified by the Department of Justice as transit points for Mexican drug cartels.
Population density is another key factor to theft rates, Scafidi says. It's for obvious reasons — the denser the population, the lower the rate.
"What they lose in Fresno or Modesto they lose at half-time at a Lakers game," Scafidi says. "But L.A. never makes the top 10 because there are 18 million people down there."
California's warm weather also tempts people to be more carefree about leaving windows rolled down and convertible tops open, says Terri Miller, director of the Michigan-based Help Eliminate Auto Theft program — both of which present tempting invitations for opportunistic thieves.
While it's often assumed that crime rises as the economy worsens, that isn't necessarily the case with auto theft.
"Losing one's job doesn't I think turn most people into overnight felons," Scafidi says. "Can we show that one's own financial situation has a bearing on some crimes? Absolutely. But a sweeping statement like that is not supported by the evidence."
All told, 71 percent of the 366 MSAs measured (and six on our list) reported fewer car thefts in 2010 than in 2009. Improved law-enforcement practices and tougher legislation have a lot to do with it. But the cars themselves are another big reason for the decline.
"Cars are just getting harder to steal," Miller says. That's thanks to immobilizer chips in car keys, advanced theft-deterrent systems and positioning technologies like Ford's Sync and GM's OnStar service — they work well to track and recover stolen vehicles quickly.
But the flip side of that improvement is an increased rate of a pettier crime: "We are seeing increases in theft of components," Miller says.
Car tires and rims have strong resale values on the black market, and catalytic converters are hot items thanks to high prices for the precious metals they contain. Airbags can fetch $200 on the black market, according to the Insurance Information Institute; airbag theft costs more than $50 million each year for insurers and vehicle owners.
All told, auto theft costs consumers and insurance companies more than $8 billion every year, according to FBI statistics. And of the more than 1 million vehicles stolen annually, fewer than 60 percent of them are recovered.
It's enough to make you rethink buying that new ride.