The good news for motorists is that the number of auto thefts dropped last year by 3.3 percent, according to statistics compiled by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The bad news is that still means a car is stolen every 43 seconds in the United States, which the FBI says is responsible for around $4.5 billion in annual losses.
While drivers are obviously doing a better job of protecting their vehicles, and law enforcement officials and insurance investigators are successfully putting thieves behind bars, experts say criminals are becoming increasingly clever in the process.
“Thieves are always coming up with new ways to steal vehicles and it’s important for [motorists] to be aware and educated to protect themselves and their vehicles,” says Terri Miller, director of the crime prevention organization H.E.A.T. (Help Eliminate Auto Thefts) in Livonia, Mich. “Drivers need to know that preventing auto theft-related crimes now goes beyond locking your car door, keeping personal items out of sight and parking in well-lit areas.”
As the latest technology is making new cars more theft proof, Miller says that thieves have moved into such “unconventional” car crimes as component theft and online fraud to illegally line their pockets.
For example, rather than drive away a vehicle and take it to a so-called “chop shop” for dismantling, thieves are increasingly removing the most valuable components on the spot for later resale. Catalytic converters, which contain three-to-seven grams of precious metals that include platinum, palladium and rhodium, are once again becoming popular targets among car thieves. What’s more, the FBI says that more than 75,000 airbags are stolen each year and can command several hundred dollars on the resale market. Other popular targets include GPS navigation systems, DVD players, xenon high-intensity headlamps and alloy wheels/performance tires.
Components are usually sold to illicit dealers and repair shops and are often marketed on the Internet. As such, they’re hard to trace, and there have been incidents recorded of thieves attempting to sell victims their own cars’ purloined parts.
Online fraud is likewise on the rise, with criminals using the Internet to sell so-called “cloned” cars to unsuspecting buyers that have been retagged with phony vehicle identification numbers and re-titled. Recently, police broke up a ring outside of Chicago that’s alleged to be responsible for more than 200 car thefts. Most were luxury models that were subsequently sold on sites like Craigslist.com for literally pennies on the dollar. According to the Illinois Secretary of State’s office, thieves would pose as vehicle transporters, using fraudulent paperwork to collect off-lease vehicles from new-dealers. They would then replace the vehicle identification number tags with VINs copied from Canadian vehicles of the same make and model, and use illicit out-of-state registrations to obtain a fresh Illinois title.
An owner whose VIN has been pilfered can find him or herself being held responsible for someone else’s parking tickets and traffic citations, while a buyer who inadvertently purchases a cloned car will have it confiscated if its true ownership is ascertained. If you’re buying a used car, always check for scratches or evidence of tampering on the car’s VIN number at the top of the dashboard, the doorframe or engine block, and be sure to obtain a vehicle history report through CarFax or other credible source.
“Purchasers and sellers need to be aware of the scams out there,” says Lt. Ray Collins of the Western Wayne Michigan Auto Theft Team. “If it looks too good to be true, it most likely is, and when in doubt, don’t. If something seems suspicious during the purchasing/selling process, call your local police department to have them look into it.”