Having just purchased the car of my dreams over the past week, nothing could be a scarier thought than having it stolen out of my driveway or garage. Yet, auto theft is a reality for quite a few folks across the United States.
According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, there were an estimated 721,053 motor vehicle thefts last year alone, or about one theft per every 435 people in the U.S. The both scary and bright side of this figure is that it's improved dramatically over the past decade as automotive anti-theft technology has improved, alongside of car owner awareness. Since 2003, total auto thefts have fallen by an incredible 42.8%.
We're occasionally privy to lists that help us decipher what model of car is the most stolen, but rarely are we able to look at data showing us which metropolitan areas are the most vulnerable to car theft -- until now, that is.
The National Insurance Crime Bureau took to the task of compiling theft data across all major metropolitan statistical areas in the U.S. According to the definitions set forth by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget, an MSA is defined as a city having at least one urban area and 50,000 or more people. In other words, practically every state is going to qualify, and it should therefore give us a discernible look into which metros in the U.S. are the most dangerous when it comes to car theft.
We'll look at the three states with the highest cumulative auto thefts in their large metros, we'll examine which cars thieves tend to pick on the most, and after we're all done, we'll point out some of the newer technology that car companies are employing to help cut down on auto theft.
No. 3: Florida
Some people head to Florida to retire or to get a bit of summer sun -- criminals just head there to steal your car! According to NICB's statistics, the compilation of Florida's metros resulted in 39,225 auto thefts in 2012. At the top of the list within Florida, based on individual years, was the 2006 Ford pick-up (full-size), the 2000 Honda (NYSE:HMC) Civic, and the 1996 Honda Accord.
Not a lot of surprises here, as, according to NICB, the Honda Accord, Honda Civic, and full-size Ford pick-up are the three most commonly stolen cars in the U.S. regardless of year manufactured. In fact, of the 25 top cars stolen in 2012, the first 16 spots went to Honda Accord's and Civic's manufactured between 1990 and 2000.
No. 2: Texas
The state motto of Texas might be "friendship," but based on the statistics from NICB, there are quite a few enemies floating around in its largest metros. Based on NICB's statistics, there were 66,015 car thefts in Texas' largest metros in 2012. The three most stolen vehicles topping Texas' list include the full-size 2006 Ford pick-up (that's two states in a row!), the 2004 full-size Chevrolet pick-up, and the 2003 full-size Dodge pick-up.
You may very well have noticed a trend with Texas -- big vehicles, including trucks and SUV's, are the primary targets. NICB's statistics show that six of the top 10 most stolen vehicles are either trucks or SUV's.
No. 1: California
I lived there for 25 years, so this really didn't surprise me one iota. What did shock me was just how far ahead of every other metro area California was in auto thefts. In 2012, NICB reports that California metros nearly tripled the number two state for metro-based auto thefts, Texas, with a cumulative 179,457 thefts. Here, the three most stolen vehicles included the 1994 Honda Accord, the 1998 Honda Civic, and the 1991 Toyota Camry.
The most obvious factor that stands out is that cars made between 1990 and 2000 are at a much higher risk to be stolen than any other manufactured year range. The reason you see Honda Civics and Accords top the list often is that many of their body and engine components, from year to year, are often interchangeable. This means easy pickings for a car thief who can sell parts off your car for a hefty sum of money in a short amount of time.
Another interesting tidbit that could play a role in auto thefts is state location. Without question a higher population density is going to lead to more cumulative metro thefts, but simply being near an escape route, such as California and Texas both bordering Mexico, gives car thieves a somewhat accessible and difficult to trace route to dispose of the evidence (in this case your car) for quick cash.
How auto theft is being fought
The good news is that automakers have heeded these warnings and are introducing newer technology to help curb auto thefts. Given that total thefts are down close to 43% since 2003, I'd say we're certainly on the right path.
Honda, for example, has moved toward transponder keys in many cases. Unlike standard ignition keys of the mid-1990s, which could be replaced with ease -- and apparently duplicated without a problem, either -- transponder keys come with a chip built inside that emits a signal to the ignition, essentially telling it that it's OK to start. If the ignition doesn't get the correct signal, it simply won't start. The downside, of course, is that if you lose your keys it's going to be a lot more expense than your standard $3 trek to your local hardware store to have a key made, but the safety over the long run is much improved.
LoJack GPS tracking devices remain an option for some people as well; however, sales of the recovery devices have been on the decline or flat for the better part of the decade. For the most part, manufacturers are taking the onus on themselves to beef up ignition security to prevent auto thefts before the customer even has a need for LoJack's recovery device.
Fool contributor Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.
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