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Helpful Tips to Protect Your Vehicle From Car Theft
by Denise McCluggage

How to Make Your Car Theft ResistantThe only sure way to avoid having your car stolen is not to own one. There are, however, ways to reduce the possibility of your finding an empty parking space on your return and realize that your vehicle is now a statistic: one of more than a million stolen every year in the United States.

Start making your car theft resistant by creating simple precautionary habits. The intent is to convince thieves that your machine is too much trouble for them. Car thieves prefer quick and easy. Anything you do to make taking your car more difficult and time consuming the greater your chances of keeping it.

There's a continuum of opportunity from a piece of cake to risky business. If you leave your car running while you hop out to grab a newspaper or score a coffee you are abetting any crook that drives it away. Take your keys for those run-in errands. How many seconds are you willing to take to protect this major investment? Even when you are self-serving your car at the gas pump — and particularly when you go in to pay: take the keys — lock the car. Gas stations are a smorgasbord for joyriders and carjackers.

If on the contrary you left your car in an attended lot or parked midway on a bright street alive with passersby, turned your front wheels into the curb (listen for the locking click) set your parking brake, closed the windows and locked up your car is becoming a poor candidate for a thief. If you've added a brightly visible steering wheel or brake lock and left nothing in the car visible from the outside you've done even more to protect your property.

Will you have stopped the thief from stealing a car? No. If he's having a larcenous moment he'll take one. Yes, maybe even yours, but more likely someone else's.

There's one rather like yours parked in a corner space on a quiet street around the block. It is shrouded in shadows; the sunroof and two windows are slightly open to affect some cooling. Expensive sunglasses are left on the dash and a purse is tucked — almost — under a seat. The purse probably has house keys inside and mail with a street address. Enough to make a thief salivate. The only thing missing is a bumper sticker: "I'm Yours!"

If you own a rare chariot that stirs the avarice in those with more money than scruples your property might be targeted by pros stealing to order. These underworld entrepreneurs are determined and practiced. They can have your car snatched so quickly it eddies the leaves. You need even more care — a disabling device and a tracking service might help (more later).

But, sadly, nothing is 100 percent certain for the good guys. Your next line of defense is to lessen the impact of the theft. (See below)
Professionals like to tow your vehicle or load it on a truck. (When you park in a corner spot you make it easier for them). Before the congenial laughter over your dessert has faded your car can be on its way to its new "owner," maybe continents away.

But you don’t have to own such a singular machine to be of interest to a pro. The most popular cars for thieves are the most popular cars for buyers; best sellers like Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Honda Civic traditionally are near the top of the most-stolen list. With more of them out there the demand for parts goes up. And any car is worth more in pieces than it is as an entire car.

If you purposely drive a battered beater to eliminate worry about theft, don't let your smile grow smug too soon. Even the paint-pealing clunkers are not safe from thieves. Thieves know their car anatomy and what a parts harvest will yield in unearned income. Or maybe they just want to get from this place to another and haven't the price of a bus ticket. Or maybe they want a low profile car to commit another crime. Thieves have many reasons for stealing cars.

Cars stolen for parts are rarely recovered. They can be whisked away, dissembled in a chop shop and their parts put on the market in an alarmingly short time. Cars stolen on order are usually rushed out of the country or repainted in a trice. Cars stolen for joyriding or impromptu transportation are more often recovered, but usually breathing hard and much the worse for their misadventures. Sometimes you'd prefer it hadn't turned up at all. Recovery of stolen cars runs at about 60 percent nationwide.

Some car theft facts:

  • Odds for having your car stolen were 1 in 194 in 2001, according to the III (Insurance Information Institute.)

  • Only 13.6 percent of car thefts were cleared by arrests that year.

  • Car thefts decreased for eight years in the 90s but are on the increase again.

  • Odds for car theft are highest in urban areas and in port cities and border communities.

  • SUVs, pick-ups and minivans have been growing in popularity with thieves.

  • The advent of car alarms and locking devices spawned carjacking, which is commandeering a car (often already running.)

  • Carjacking is more perilous for the driver (90 percent involve the use of a weapon) but is relatively rare accounting for less than 4 percent of all vehicle thefts.

Now some thoughts on convincing a thief to reject your car, some gadgetry that might help, how to increase the chances of getting it back and how to reduce the shock of losing your car.

Theft prevention at home:

  • Lock your car in your own driveway. Roaming thieves count on you not doing it. (Even in your own locked garage a locked car is added security).

  • If you are an incurable winter-warmer-upper (a dubious plan that's hard on the engine) let the car run while locked; use a second set of keys to open the door.

  • When you leave a rear-wheel-drive car in the driveway, back it in. Head it in with front-wheel-drive cars. This makes it somewhat harder for the thieves who tow.

  • Install a motion-activated floodlight that illuminates the place where your car is parked.

Theft prevention away from home:

  • Always close up the car completely, lock it and take your keys with you.

  • Never leave an unlocked car with the engine running, particularly if there is a child or pet in the car. Either take a responsible someone with you on those "run-inside" errands or use drive-through businesses.

  • Lock everything in the trunk before you reach the spot you are parking. Assume larcenous eyes are watching.

  • If your vehicle is still full of stuff cover it all with a "disappearing cloth" (a throw of matte black material such as felt spread smoothly over the car's contents. (Don't travel without one).

  • If your vehicle is often loaded (for business or for traveling) have dark film installed on your windows. (Check your state laws for permitted density and other restrictions).

  • Avoid leaving spare keys "hidden" in your car (above the visor, under the mat or in the ash tray is plain sight to a thief).

  • Think twice before hiding spare keys outside or under your car in magnetic or Velcro holders.

  • Choose your parking spaces well: attended lots are best. Park near the lighted entry of a restaurant, not in back. When traveling choose restaurants with a window table overlooking your parking spot.

  • On the street, avoid corner spaces; choose well-lighted, active areas.

  • Turn the wheels into the curb; put manual-shift cars in low, set the parking brake.

  • A possible deterrent and helpful in recovery: visibly etch the VIN (vehicle identification number) on the window glass and on as many components as feasible thus reducing the value of these parts to a thief.

  • Anything that warns of existing alarms, such as window stickers, or even looks alarm-like, such as tiny intermittent red lights on the dash, may induce the joyrider or impulse thief to look elsewhere.

Some gadgetry aimed at deterring thefts:

  • Audible alarms. These can cost up to several hundred dollars with professional installation. Many new cars come equipped with them. We've all heard car alarms wail away, ignored and annoying. Maybe it's one triggered inadvertently or maybe the alarm has done its job and deterred a casual thief. (Rarely a serious pro)

  • Inaudible alarms. These can be silent at the car but alert you in your house or shop or restaurant via beeper that your car is being tampered with. But ask yourself: do you really want to interrupt a possibly armed, certainly dangerous criminal in the act of stealing your car?

  • Hood locks to deter access to the engine and control centers.

  • Wheel locks (like those used by parking control officers). These are a bit cumbersome and certainly time consuming for frequent application, but quite useful when parking for a long time in garages or long-term airport lots.

  • Armored collars around steering column, usually best for older cars, can at least give a thief more to do before hot-wiring your car and driving off.

    A steering wheel lock bar, like the popular "The Club," (Premium version is around $50) may be a snap for a pro to defeat but still adds a few seconds to his schedule and could deflect him to another car. The Club should be teamed with The Shield (sold separately), a steering wheel cover to protect your airbag, which is easily and often taken. Alas, crooks armed with freon or liquid nitrogen can render the metal bars brittle and easily broken. Or the thief can cut through the steering wheel, made susceptibly weak for safety in crashes.

  • "The Unbrakeable Autolock" ($50) is a metal device that blocks use of the brake pedal, with a heftier shaft by far than the steering wheel. The brake must be depressed to start a manual car or to shift out of park for an automatic. Again, the casual thief is unlikely to have the necessary tools or the time but the pro has solved these devices, too. Tools to foil them are even sold on the Internet.

  • Kill switches whose location is known only to you. If the switches aren't activated when the car is started the ignition or fuel flow or both cuts out. Sometimes these cessations occur a short time after the thief is underway stalling the car in an inopportune spot and garnering the attention he does not want. Ideally, he flees. But the pros know about these things and can sometimes defeat them. If they are towing or loading the car on a truck, kill switches don't matter.

  • Another disabling device: one that attaches to the battery and will cut off all power if proper procedures are not followed.

What you can do that will assist recovery of your car:
Fast, accurate reporting of the theft is essential.
The shock of the moment might shut down brain processes so have the following information written on a small card in your purse or wallet so you can report intelligently to the police:

  • Make, model, year and color (exterior and interior) of the vehicle.

  • License plate, state and number.

  • VIN (vehicle identification number)

  • Special wheels or other unique equipment

  • "Scars" (dents or damages)

  • Identifiers like stickers on windshield; bumper stickers,

  • Your name, address and phone numbers.

  • Include on this card your insurance policy number and agent's phone.

  • Having a photo of your car, particularly if it is rare, can be useful.

Install a tracking system.
A concealed transmitter somewhat larger than a pack of cards is installed in a randomly selected hidden spot on your car. When activated by a report of theft to the police it emits signals that can be picked up by specially equipped police cruisers. The police home in on the signal (receivable in about six miles radius) and ideally locate the car. LoJack was begun in 1986 in the Boston area and claims a 90 percent recovery rate, often minutes after a report is made.

Though spreading worldwide, LoJack's availability is extremely limited. Check with your local police since LoJack is the only tracking system directly involving law enforcement entities. LoJack costs about $600 with $250 more adding a new service that can warn you directly (by phone, pager or email) if your car has been moved without authorization.

LoJack is designed as an aid to recovery, not a theft deterrent, but options add alarm and disabling devices as well. The equipment becomes a part of the car because it is registered with the vehicle's VIN number and cannot be transferred to a new vehicle.

Savvy thieves might pull out the antenna or happen on the device and disable it. But, not uncommonly, unknowing thieves have lead the cops right into the chop shop, like an ant carrying poison into the nest. Cops like amplifying the collar like that.

Ground Positioning System (GPS) devices such as General Motor's OnStar also have capability for locating a vehicle in the hands of unauthorized drivers. OnStar is not connected directly to the police. OnStar uses satellites for communication so it is inoperative under a roof or in a tunnel. Still it can claim successes in vehicle recovery.

What you can do to lessen the impact of a car theft:

Have adequate insurance current.

Avoid keeping the car registration or insurance information inside the car. (Create a "car wallet" with all that in it, keep it with the car keys and remember to take it when you drive.)

Keep the car keys separate from house or office keys.

Leave nothing in the car with your home address on it, particularly if you have a garage door opener inside.

Don't "store" valuable objects such as golf clubs or other sporting gear in your car. That increases your loss.

Doing what you can to make your car a less desirable target and keeping it free of anything that could enlarge the theft (like granting thieves access to your home or office with keys and addresses) is all you can do. Do that and forget it. Constantly fretting about the possibility of having your car stolen is a less effective theft deterrent than any listed above and it can make you wretched.

Research LoJack, The Club, and other car theft deterrents on the Internet for specific solutions to your theft concerns.