Auto Theft Becomes Fashionable Again, Most Stolen Vehicles of 2020


Car theft has been trending downward over the last couple of years. According to data from the Insurance Information Institute, 2019 represented a 4-percent decline in thefts across the United States vs the previous annum. But things look even better when you zoom out. The Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates that automotive transgressions have fallen by 64 percent since 1993, mimicking the general trajectory of property and violent crimes within that timeframe.

Unfortunately, crime is back on the rise and vehicle theft is coming along for the ride. Let’s explore the how and why before determining if your personal ride happens to be a preferred target. Then we’ll get into what you can do about it because the latest statistics are pretty disheartening. 

Over the summer, the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles notified residents that they might want to consider upping their security game if they didn’t want to see their car stolen or gutted for parts. Yours truly even got a letter in the mail explaining how to make my vehicle a less-appetizing target. Motorcycle thefts had risen by 63 percent in the first six months of 2021 in NYC and statewide vehicle thefts rose 54 percent in 2020 (year-over-year). Early estimates have 2021 being substantially worse.

While I’m sure some of those missing motorcycles were scooped up by the NYPD as part of the city’s heinous “dirt bike” ban, the scope of the problem is obviously much bigger when 572 percent more catalytic converters were cut out of vehicles through the first half of 2021 than all of last year. Car crime is not isolated to the whole vehicle, nor the Big Apple for that matter. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), Chicago saw an insane 134-percent increase in vehicle thefts last year (vs 2019) and Washington D.C. jumped up by 50 percent over the same timeframe.

The group has estimated that U.S. vehicle crime surged ahead by at least 9 percent in 2020 (year-over-year), with NICB President and CEO David Glawe suggesting that the national response to the pandemic basically set the table for a surge of criminal malfeasance.

“We have a lot of disenfranchised youth that are unemployed, and outreach programs are shut down or limited due to Covid,” Glawe told CNBC in June. “There is frustration and anger in society. We are also seeing public safety resource limitations and withdrawal of proactive policing due to budget constraints.”

With 2021 already showing that crime might be the only growth market the United States has right now, it’s unlikely that next year’s tally will be much worse. Production constraints, made worse by rampant supply issues, have made vehicles (new and used) substantially more valuable over the last few months. Secondhand hunks of steel are being listed roughly 30 percent higher today than they were in 2020 and thieves have taken notice.

Though not all vehicles have proven to be equally desirable. While they managed to hang in there, America’s most-boosted automobile is no longer a Honda Civic or Accord. Tastes have shifted toward pickups, according to the NICB, and they’re all over the top ten most stolen autos for 2020:

2006 Ford (Full Size) Pickup
2004 Chevrolet (Full Size) Pickup
2000 Honda Civic
1997 Honda Accord
2019 Toyota Camry
2020 Nissan Altima
2005 GMC (Full Size) Pickup
2020 Toyota Corolla
2000 Honda CR-V
2001 Dodge (Full Size) Pickup

Full-sized pickups were already trending among thieves in 2018 and have only gotten more popular since. But we still see the usual lineup of small Japanese products prone to holding their value rounding out the list. Also, don’t let some of those older model years fool you. Stealing a modern car with a keyless entry/push-button start isn’t any harder than nabbing one from two decades ago. You simply need a different set of tools to relay, decode, and spoof the frequency the RF key fob transmits.

For those interested in lowering their odds of becoming a victim, there are loads of obvious things you can do. We would recommend never leaving the keys in your car for any reason and leaving it in places that are well lit. Parking your car in a place that’s more secure than the curb (assuming that’s possible) is also advisable. If you have keyless entry and/or push-button start, you might want to consider keeping the fobs inside of a DIY (or store-bought) Faraday pouch to avoid someone else scooping up the frequency. Just make sure you test it to make sure it’s effective.

But those interested in further stepping up their security game can enter into the world of kill switches, fuel-line cutoffs, tracking systems, immobilizers, and car alarms. While you have to decide what you’re willing to do and (in the case of alarms) put up with, the above can help mitigate your risk of waking up without a vehicle. Alarms are a great deterrent, often scaring off would-be thieves by drawing attention to the car whilst annoying your neighbors. But they can be defeated and are less effective in locales where car alarms are part of the evening ambiance. Installing a hidden kill switch or fuel cutoff adds another layer of protection, though it’s not something everyone can do themselves or would want to deal with on a shared vehicle.

There are cheaper and easier solutions, too. Your author has had good luck with simply swapping wires on the distributor found on vintage vehicles. But that could cause you to soil yourself when you forget and attempt to start the vehicle. Odds are also good that you’re in possession of something more modern. A better solution may be to simply disable the battery if you’re leaving your vehicle unattended for an extended period of time using a quick disconnect. Though my preferred solution is to just yank out any fuse relay the car needs to operate, walking off with it in my pocket, and reinstalling it once I’m ready to use the vehicle again. It’s free, can be accomplished by novices with a modicum of research, and basically foolproof unless you’re dealing with a particularly dedicated and well-prepared thief.

Ultimately, all you really need to do is inconvenience someone that wants to steal your car to a point that they choose another target. There’s no singular way to do that, so it’s probably a good idea to double up and maximize your chances. But anything you can do (including my dirt-bag recommendations) is likely to make a meaningful difference as car thievery comes back into style.

[Image: Daniel Jedzura/Shutterstock]

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