Auto Theft: Worst Cities for Stolen Cars

Last Updated Jun 20, 2011 4:29 PM EDT

What increases a car's odds of being stolen? Apparently, it's a California license plate, to judge by data compiled by the National Insurance Crime Bureau. In its annual Hot Spots Report, NICB identifies the metropolitan areas with the highest rate of car theft -- and eight of the top 10 areas are in California, with the other two in Washington state.

The report also had a big of good news: The FBI statistics show a 7.2 percent decrease in auto theft nationwide over the previous year. "Improved anti-theft technology and law enforcement efforts have had a significant impact on thefts," said NICB chief Joe Wehrle -- although he pointed out that professional criminal rings and gangs still pose an ongoing challenge to law enforcement, as well as to car owners.

Professional thieves are particularly active in California, since cars stolen there can either be moved to Mexico for sale or shipped out to Asia in containers through the ports of Long Beach, Los Angeles and Oakland, says NICB spokesman Frank Scafidi. State and local budget troubles throughout California may also be causing cutbacks in police and prosecutors specializing in car theft, he added.

Car theft has by no means been banished from the Midwest and East Coast. The second half of the top 20 included Detroit, Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Macon, Ga. And not surprisingly, the metro areas where cars are least likely to be stolen tend to be small cities in relatively rural parts of their states. Car theft in the worst city in the U.S. -- Fresno, Calif. -- is 27 times as frequent as in State College, Pa. -- the city with the lowest car theft rate.

Other small cities with low theft rates include Glenns Falls and Elmira, N.Y., Holland, Mich., Harrisonburg, W. Va., and Sheboygan, Wisc. To check the rate in your city, consult the full rankings at the NICB web site.
Here's a rundown of the 10 worst areas for car theft:
1. Fresno, Calif.
2. Modesto, Calif.
3. Bakersfield-Delano, Calif.
4. Spokane, Wash.
5. Vallejo-Fairfield, Calif.
6. Sacramento, Calif. area
7. Stockton, Calif.
8. Visalia-Porterville, Calif.
9. San Francisco-Oakland,Calif.
10. Yakima, Wash.

But no matter where you live, you can take steps to protect your own car from theft. And don't assume that because you have an older car, no one wants to steal it. The list of most-stolen cars includes many older, mid-priced models. (See Used Cars: Avoid These Most-Stolen Models.)

Experts advise these precautions:

Discourage thieves: Many car boosters -- whether professional or amateur -- are looking for the easiest target. So they pass by vehicles that seem to defeat a quick grab. For around $50, you can buy The Club or other steering wheel lock; for about $80, you can get a "tire claw" lock that will keep one wheel from moving. Such locks add to the difficulty and time it takes to steal your car or truck

Sound the alarm: For $200 to $300, an auto electronics shop can install an alarm that will go off if the door is opened without a key. Be sure to get a decal that announces the alarm. The ear-assaulting alarm noise won't stop all car thieves -- but, like The Club, it might encourage them to seek another target.

Kill the engine: Cars, trucks and SUVs from recent years have a built-in system that prevents the vehicle from starting unless the engine computer gets a signal from the precisely matched key. To approximate this in an older car, you can get professional installation of a so-called kill switch. This disrupts the circuitry of the engine unless the switch is turned on. The installer will hide the switch somewhere reachable from the driver's seat but where thieves cannot quickly find it.

Photo of California license plate courtesy of Flickr user woody1778a
Photo of Welcome to California sign courtesy of Flickr user faithx5

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    View all articles by Jerry Edgerton on CBS MoneyWatch»
    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.

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