Car Theft By The Numbers: Are You At Risk?

  • Car theft has far-reaching social and economic impacts, totaling billions in losses in 2017.
  • Chevy and Ford trucks are common targets, but the Honda Accord remains the most stolen.
  • We examine the data to help you understand car theft and provide ways to protect yourself.   

With the birth of Ford’s mechanical assembly line, the United States became a nation on wheels. As the automotive industry flourished, so too did another vehicular enterprise. Car theft. Authors John A. Heitmann and Rebecca H. Morales in Stealing Cars: Technology and Society from the Model T to the Gran Torinoshow how early vehicles were easy to steal and difficult to find. Since nearly all cars of the time looked alike, it was rather challenging for law enforcement. While modern anti-theft technology can deter thieves, it’s worth noting nearly half of all stolen cars today are never recovered.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finds a vehicle is stolen every 41 seconds in the U.S. today. Data from the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) reveals vehicle thefts in the U.S. rose last year by more than four percent, according to preliminary 2017 crime data from the FBI.

Perception Versus Reality

Hollywood glamorized the car thief, once in 1974 and again in 2000 with Gone In 60 Seconds. The object of affection for both films is “Eleanor,” an elusive Ford Mustang. However, the reality is far less awesome than Randall “Memphis” Raines leaping across the skyline in the iconic pony car. According to a recent study from Driving-Tests.org, around $6 billion was lost due to automobile theft in 2017, an average of $7,708 per vehicle stolen.

“To individuals and families, that’s a steep financial burden to bear,” said Mel Kasulis, from the creative team at Driving-Tests.org and the study’s Project Manager. “It can also have an economic impact on society as a whole: higher crime rates in communities, an increase in insurance rates, and a financial impact on businesses when employees can’t get to work.”

“Chop shops” are a common destination for stolen cars, where they are dismantled and sold for parts. NHTSA says doors, engines, transmissions, and air bags are among the most sought after and profitable components. The NICB says expensive parts are a factor in car thefts, as criminals steal vehicles to strip them of their components, later selling them on the black market. Those looking to steal a car for parts will search accordingly.

“Usually it’s the ease of breaking down the car or truck for parts,” said First Lieutenant Michael Shaw, Second District Public Information Officer for the Michigan State Police. “The easier it is to sell the parts, the more often the vehicle is stolen.”

By The Numbers

The team at Driving-Tests.org used the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Data from 2016 and 2017 to find the number of thefts nationwide; balancing that with data from the NICB. Driving-Tests.org considered population data and automobile registration data by state to determine the number of stolen vehicles per 1,000 registered automobiles, and 100,000 residents by state. Finally, the team calculated the average money lost per vehicle by state using data from the Insurance Information Institute.

“This project was inspired by our personal incidences with car thefts,” Kasulis revealed. “This had us wondering what the trends were in these crimes; which cars are most vulnerable and which cities and states are impacted the most.”

Chevy/Ford Trucks & Honda Cars Most Targeted

According to the study from Driving-Tests.org, Chevy and Ford trucks are stolen most often in Southern and Midwestern states. By comparison, the Honda Accord is stolen the most in states like New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. Overall, the Honda Accord remains the most stolen vehicle according to data from federal agencies like NHTSA. Given vehicles like the Accord, and Chevy and Ford trucks, are top-sellers, Kasulis believes they are more at risk.

“More popular cars are more likely to get lost in a crowded parking lot, which makes for a more inconspicuous theft,” she said.

Over 45,000 Honda Civics and nearly 44,000 Accords were stolen in 2017, according to the NICB’s 2017 Hot Wheels report, released in September. Some Honda dealerships even offer advice on how to prevent theft for Accord owners. That same report found over 35,000 Ford trucks were stolen in 2017, compared to about 30,000 Chevy trucks. The NICB says cars without modern anti-theft technology are especially at risk.

“While our data doesn’t speak to this specifically, many of the most stolen cars are models that predate ‘smart key’ technology and extensive anti-theft systems,” Kasulis explained. “Investing in a car with anti-theft systems plays a big role in preventing theft.”

The Last Frontier Is First

In their study, Driving-Tests.org says the top 10 places for stolen vehicles are Alaska, New Mexico, Washington, D.C., Nevada, Colorado, Oregon, California, Oklahoma, and Washington. By contrast, Vermont, Delaware, North Dakota, and South Dakota were among the states with the biggest drops in vehicle thefts. Alaska has, according to the Driving-Tests.org study, roughly 22 vehicles stolen for every 1,000 registered. Between 2016 and 2017 alone, vehicle thefts in Alaska jumped nearly 40 percent. Data from the Anchorage Police Department shows 3,122 vehicles were stolen in 2017, but that figure is dropping.

During a press conference earlier this year, reported on by Zachariah Hughes of Alaska Public Media, the Anchorage Police Department said thefts were down 60 percent. Officials described the thefts as crimes of opportunity, often motivated by habitual drug use. Vehicles left running in the cold weather are especially susceptible to theft.

“It’s transportation to get across town to either buy more drugs or commit other crimes,” said Lieutenant Jared Tuia of the Anchorage Police Department during the press conference. “And a lot of times, they sell the vehicles amongst other users.”

Shaw agrees with that assessment.

“Like many crimes, car theft is money-motivated: some need drug money while others just need money period,” he said. “Other times it’s just opportunity. Someone leaves a car running or unlocked and someone takes advantage of it.”

Kasulis agrees as well but says there are other underlying issues to consider.

“While we can only speculate, we know there isn’t just one factor to pinpoint as the cause,” she explained. “The opioid epidemic, economic downturn, and high unemployment rates have been previously explored as contributing to Alaska’s high car theft rates.”

Don’t Leave Your Keys (Or Your Valuables)

According to recent data from the NICB, on every single day from January 1st, 2016, through December 31st, 2018, an average of 209 vehicles were stolen nationwide. Why? Because drivers left their keys or fobs in their vehicles. During this three-year timeframe, 229,339 vehicles were stolen in this fashion, a 56 percent increase since 2015. The five states with the most thefts of this type during this period were: California (31,185); Florida (17,300); Texas (15,511); Ohio (12,596) and Nevada (11,391).

“We can’t stress enough the importance of locking your vehicle and taking the key or fob with you when you leave it,” said Joe Wehrle, NICB President and CEO. “Anti-theft technology works, but only if you use it.”

Shaw says a thief will look for the path of least resistance; meaning the circumstances of the moment may determine the outcome. For example, a locked car with a modern security system in a well-lit area, versus one left running and/or parked in a dark area.

“I think we all know which car is going to be stolen,” Shaw said.

Sometimes, a thief isn’t looking for your car, just the stuff inside. According to NHTSA, radios, GPS units, cell phones, iPads, laptops, and purses are among the items most frequently stolen. The Anchorage Police Department’s “Lock, Remove, and Conceal” approach is good to follow if you are traveling with valuable items. Many crossovers and SUVs today offer privacy covers for the rear cargo area, and while they help, it’s still best to follow age-old advice.

“Lock your vehicle as most crime is opportunity,” Shaw continued. “And don’t leave it running, even for a second.”

Exercising Caution & Protecting Yourself

The NICB encourages everyone to utilize these “Layers of Protection” when it comes to preventing car theft. On the list are relatively easy things to remember, like parking your car in a well-lit area, making use of your garage, and not leaving valuables behind. Other tips include investing in alarms, wheels locks, steering column collars, and tracking systems. If someone steals your vehicle, contact your local police department and your insurance provider as soon as possible.

Finally, the Michigan State Police advise to never confront a thief in the act.

“Most importantly, if someone approaches you with a weapon and wants your vehicle, give it to them,” Shaw said. “It’s only metal and not worth your life.”

Carl Anthony studies mechanical engineering at Wayne State University, serves on the Board of Directors for the Ally Jolie Baldwin Foundation, and is a loyal Detroit Lions fan. Before going back to school, he simultaneously held product development and experiential marketing roles in the automotive industry. 

Additional Resources

How To Prevent Your Car From Being Stolen: via Geico.

18 Things Car Thieves Won’t Tell You: via Reader’s Digest. 

Best Anti-Theft Devices To Keep Your Car Safe: via Digital Trends. 

Vehicle Theft Prevention: via the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Sources: Alaska Public Media, Anchorage Police Department, Driving-Tests.org, Michigan State Police, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, National Insurance Crime Bureau.

Read This Next
Everything You Need To Know About Buying Used Tires