Worried about car theft? Well, we have good news and bad news.
The bad news is that auto theft continues to be a major problem. According to the most recent FBI data, 737,142 vehicles were stolen in 2010, with losses totaling $4.5 billion.
Also bad: criminals are smart, and they're getting smarter. Just last week, law enforcement officials in New York busted a nationwide ring of car thieves who used a laptop and a guy on the inside to create counterfeit key fobs. The crooks drove off with scores of rides and put them right in the hands of eager, black-market buyers overseas.
Makes you weak in the knees, doesn't it?
But we said there's good news, and there is -- loads of it.
For starters, crime in the U.S. is on the decline. Check out these stats from the FBI, and you'll see that on every front -- from motor vehicle theft to murder -- we're heading in the right direction.
What's more, most auto thieves are opportunists. True, the scumbags caught in New York pounded the pavement looking for specific makes and models (mostly Toyota and Lexus SUVs). However, the vast majority of car crooks go for the gold only when the opportunity presents itself and the odds of success are high.
Here are six tips to ensure that those odds are never in their favor.
1. Lock it or lose it: Sure, you lock your car when you're at the mall or the grocery store, but do you do the same when it's parked at home in the garage? Do you roll up the windows and close the sunroof, too? If not, you're creating exactly the sort of opportunity that the bad guys are looking for (not to mention an inviting, dangerous playground for kiddies). Get in the habit of locking up every time you leave the vehicle -- even when you think you're only going to be gone a few minutes. You never know how long the line's going to be at the dry cleaner, or which motormouth you'll run into at Starbucks.
2. Keys are key: Taking your keys is second nature when you're out in public, but what about at home? We suggest pulling your key out of the ignition every time you step out of the vehicle. (We've heard more than one report of criminals staging fender-benders, just so they could zip off with a flummoxed owner's ride.) And for those of you who keep a spare stashed on the underside of your car for emergencies, we have one word: reconsider.
3. Stash the cash: You're probably smart enough to keep gift boxes from Tiffany and Harry Winston stowed in the trunk, but how about your iPhone? Your TomTom? Your laptop bag? Bad guys (and girls) might not steal a car to make off with an old MacBook, but they'll be happy to play smash-and-grab with your windows.
4. Invest in security: Many new cars come with built-in alarm systems, but if yours didn't, never fear: they're affordable and easily installed. You might also consider a tracking device like LoJack, which can locate your car if it goes "wandering off". Subscribe to a concierge service? You may already be covered: OnStar and other systems can track your vehicle and even slow it down to prevent the baddies from going too far. And as an added bonus, investments like these may lower your auto insurance premium.
5. Park smart: Like trying on your first swimsuit of the season, stealing a car is best done in isolation. So, if you want someone to nab your ride, by all means, pull into that dark, forgotten space in the far corner of the lot, behind that clump of bushes that smells like cat pee, beneath the light that's always on the fritz. You'll leave more clean, brightly-lit spots near the street for the rest of us. Rule of thumb: if a possum could nest there, keep driving.
6. Know where you stand: Unlike people, all cars aren't created equal. Sadly, if you drive a Honda Accord or Toyota Camry, you're more of a target than someone driving a Ford Focus or Chevy Cruze or -- heaven forbid -- a Pontiac Aztek. (Truck owners? Don't get cocky, because the Ford F-Series is ripe for the picking, too.) Have a look at some of the most recent auto theft stats to find out whether you ought to be a tad more cautious.
Worrying about auto theft shouldn't keep you up at night. True, you can't stop every crime, but with a few sensible precautions, you and your car can become much less attractive targets.
Just think of criminals the same way you think about your teenager or the neighborhood nudge: give 'em an inch, and they'll take your car.