Car Theft: Tips for Keeping Your Vehicle Safe

Car Theft: Tips for Keeping Your Vehicle Safe

Car thief breaking into a car windowar

Car theft increased dramatically in the United States during the first three months of 2022. According to the non-profit National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), a research group funded by the insurance industry, nearly a quarter million vehicle thefts were reported from January to March of 2022. That compares to 2021 when 936,315 Americans had their cars stolen.

Car theft had declined for two years before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. But something about the downturn in the economic fortunes of many Americans and a reduction in the total miles we drive caused that trend to reverse.

The Risk Isn’t the Same Everywhere

The rise in vehicle theft isn’t universal, the NICB reports. Some areas saw a dramatic spike. Washington, D.C., residents saw their risk rise 40{e3fa8c93bbc40c5a69d9feca38dfe7b99f2900dad9038a568cd0f4101441c3f9} in just one year. Colorado saw a similar rise, nearly 36{e3fa8c93bbc40c5a69d9feca38dfe7b99f2900dad9038a568cd0f4101441c3f9}.

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Bakersfield, California, has had the highest auto theft rate in the country for the last two years. But there is little pattern to the numbers. The five areas with the highest theft rates represent both coasts and several states in between and include heavily urban and mostly rural states.

Thieves Use Tech to Target Vehicles

Some thieves use technology, from stealing key fob signals to using tile tracking devices.

They will scan a targeted home for key fob signals, and using a device, thieves can hack a signal and transmit it to another person by the car. Depending on the strength, the criminals can break into or even steal the vehicle.

They’re also using tracking devices like Apple AirTags. Law enforcement authorities say thieves started using tracking devices placed around the car, such as behind a license plate of a targeted vehicle. However, some vehicle owners also keep tracking devices in their cars so if stolen, they can locate them.

If you find yourself in the situation of a stolen vehicle with a tracking device, always call authorities and alert them first before trying to track it down by yourself.

States With the Highest Auto Theft Rates

According to the NICB, between 2016 and 2020, these states had the highest auto theft rate per 100,000 residents (the NICB treats Washington, D.C., as a state for statistical purposes):

  • Washington, D.C.
  • Colorado
  • California
  • Missouri
  • New Mexico

States With the Lowest Auto Theft Rates

The NICB treats Puerto Rico as a state for statistical purposes.

  • Massachusetts
  • Puerto Rico
  • Vermont
  • New Hampshire
  • Maine

The Most Commonly Stolen Cars

The list of commonly stolen cars mirrors the list of best-selling vehicles most years. This is true because they’re easily available, and their parts are worth more since they are in high demand. See the 10 most commonly stolen cars in 2021 (the most recent year for NICB statistics) below.

Rank Vehicle Make & Model  Thefts Most Common Model Year Stolen
1 Chevy Full Size Pick-up  48,206            2004
2 Ford Full Size Pick-up  47,999            2006
3 Honda Civic  31,673            2000
4 Honda Accord  30,274            1997
5 Toyota Camry  17,270            2007
6 GMC Full Size Pick-up  15,599            2005
7 Nissan Altima  14,108            2020
8 Honda CR-V  13,308            2000
9 Jeep Cherokee/Grand Cherokee  13,210            2018
10 Toyota Corolla  12,927            2020

Source: NICB

A Growing Problem: Catalytic Converter Theft

Catalytic converter from a vehicle

In addition to vehicle theft, the NICB says thieves began targeting expensive catalytic converters in the last several years. Theft of these devices skyrocketed with a 1,215{e3fa8c93bbc40c5a69d9feca38dfe7b99f2900dad9038a568cd0f4101441c3f9} increase since 2019.

A catalytic converter is a device about the size of a loaf of bread (bigger on vehicles equipped with larger engines) in your car’s exhaust system. It’s located ahead of the muffler, often near the center of the vehicle, and easily accessible from underneath.

The catalytic converter helps filter harmful pollutants out of your car’s exhaust. It sends hot exhaust gasses through a honeycomb of rare metals, like rhodium and palladium, that act as sponges, absorbing harmful chemicals.

It’s those rare metals that created a catalytic converter crime wave. Their prices have spiked recently, making a relatively new converter worth thousands of dollars.

Thieves can remove them in minutes by sliding underneath the car and sawing them out of the exhaust system with a power saw.

Tips to Keep Your Car Safe

Keeping your car relatively safe from thieves isn’t complicated or expensive.

Thieves target the cars that leave them least at risk. So, a few common-sense steps can make them likely to bypass your vehicle and look for an easier mark.

PRO TIP 1: Avoid “puffing” or keeping your vehicle switched on while you run an errand. Warming and leaving a car unattended in some states and municipalities is illegal. Many owners also leave the key fobs inside, making the vehicles an easy target for thieves. See more protection tips below.

RELATED: Cars That Use Digital Keys

According to the NICB, remote starters allow car owners to start the engine while keeping the vehicle locked up, without the presence of a key or fob.

Try these four layers of protection from the NICB:

Protecting your catalytic converter involves the same steps as protecting your car.

Experts say parking inside is the best defense if you’re worried about thieves stealing your new car’s catalytic converter. Where that’s not an option, park in well-lit areas and consider installing a security camera. Several companies make guards you can install, designed to make removing the converter take too long to be worth a thief’s time. But we’ve seen no studies that examine whether the guards deter thieves.

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