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Car thefts are on the rise. Why are thieves rarely caught?

Why do most car thieves get away?
Why do most car thieves get away? 04:29

When Lisa Nisco found an affordable 2017 Infiniti for sale on Facebook Marketplace last summer, she didn't hesitate to buy it. In good condition and with relatively low mileage, the car looked like a steal at $8,000.  

Two days after taking possession of the vehicle, Nisco found out her new ride was, in fact, stolen. 

"I went to the DMV to get the car registered and [the employee] said the title was fake," Nisco said. 

While the vehicle's VIN number matched the document, Nisco says she was told the title was counterfeit and didn't match the owner name listed in their system. 

"My first reaction is just like, what's going to happen now? You're going to buy a vehicle. You're thinking everything is legit. Who would do something like this to you? You don't think for a second that someone's trying to con you," said Nisco. "It wasn't in my mind." 

Nisco contacted the New York City Police Department and says detectives confirmed the sedan she bought had been reported stolen. They said they would investigate.   

"We were told by the detectives not to drive it anywhere, because if they were to 'ping' it, we would get arrested regardless of what the situation is, because we're driving a stolen vehicle," said Nisco.   

One year later, the crime remains unsolved: no one has been arrested and the Infiniti still sits in Nisco's driveway. The NYPD told CBS News the case "remains an active and ongoing investigation." 

Last year, more than 15,000 vehicles were reported stolen in New York City — more than double the number reported in 2017, according to a CBS News analysis of department data. But the chances of police catching the criminal who stole the Infiniti are slim. 

Similar trends are seen around the country: Nationwide, vehicle thefts rose 10.9% from 2021 to 2022, according to the latest FBI data, with nearly a million vehicles stolen last year, but fewer than 70,000 arrests.

Police solve only a fraction of cases 

A CBS News analysis of police data from more than a dozen U.S. cities found nearly all of car theft cases go unsolved.  

In New York City, publicly available data shows that, in June, the department made about 14 arrests for every 100 car thefts that were reported. In Denver — one of the cities with the highest car theft rates in the country — it was lower: just 7 arrests for every 100 car thefts.  

Law enforcement struggles to keep up 

While solve rates for car theft have historically been low, the recent surge in incidents has caused them to plunge even lower. In many cities, the number of thefts reported has jumped over the course of just a few years.  

In Chicago and New York, car theft rates have more than doubled since the start of 2017. In Denver, they've more than tripled.  

In Philadelphia, the number of car thefts has increased more than 20% every year. Last year, there were more than 17,000 reported there; veteran police commander told CBS News Philadelphia "I couldn't believe the number of stolen autos I was looking at."

Nationally, solve rates for vehicle theft have remained low. FBI estimates going back as far as 2000 show less than 1 in 5 such cases were "cleared" — meaning police either made an arrest or had enough information to solve the case.  

While there are many factors that contribute to a department's clearance rate, experts told CBS News it's critical police have enough staff to keep up with the number of cases.  

"These are property crimes, and the law enforcement resources are generally understaffed," said David Glawe, president and CEO of the National Insurance Crime Bureau. "We've heard that over and over again."  

CBS reporters across the country asked law enforcement in their communities about why auto theft clearance rates are so low. All point to budget and staffing shortages. 

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said enforcement and prosecution must be better. 

"That's insane — 4%, 7%. No, that that doesn't work under anyone's estimation, and no one should accept that," he said. 

Dart also suggested it's wrong to think of car theft as just a property crime. 

"This is no different than they need a gun to commit the shooting. They need the car to commit a crime. If they don't have the car, they can't go do that drive-by. This is not some property crime. This is an instrument for major crimes that are killing and shooting and hurting people." 

None of the law enforcement agencies whose data CBS News analyzed had clearance rates over 20%. Even among those with higher solve rates such as Sacramento, which solved more incidents than many agencies nationwide, most cases remain unsolved. 

Rideshare driver hunts stolen cars 

The surge in stolen cars has kept rideshare driver Matt Nalett busy. Three years ago, he started noticing abandoned vehicles on his routes with Uber and Lyft stickers in the windows.   

"I'd call the police to report a suspicious auto and they would come out and I found out the majority of the cars were stolen after I posted them to the Uber and Lyft groups on Facebook," he said. 

So, Nalett decided to patrol the streets of Chicago hunting for stolen vehicles to reunite them with their owners. 

"I started to get to know a lot of the officers that worked different beats, and they would say, 'Hey, Matt, if you want to go find stolen cars, you know, like, go check over here and go look over there.' They were giving me spots to go look at. I was like, OK, this is cool," said Nalett on a recent Tuesday evening as he drove around looking for cars. 

Nalett says he looks for telltale signs that a vehicle might in fact be stolen. When he comes across cars collecting dust in parking structures, vehicles missing license plates, or shattered windows he runs the plate or VIN on a public Chicago Police website to see if what he's found has been reported stolen.   

On this night it took just a few minutes for Nalett to come across a Hyundai Sonata parked outside a closed storefront. The rear passenger side window had been shattered. 

"It might be a fresh steal, of course, but I'm still going to call 911 anyway," said Nalett. 

Depending on how busy police are on a given night, Nalett says he can wait anywhere from minutes to hours for officers to show up on scene. It took 45 minutes on this particular night for CPD to arrive and confirm the vehicle had been stolen from a neighboring municipality. According to police, it had been reported stolen four days earlier and they had no information on whether it was involved in any other crimes during that peroid. No arrests were made. 

"Vehicles are a low priority. Unless the car was used in a homicide or shooting or a robbery or whatever else like that, it may be higher up on the chain," he said. "But if it's just a normal straight steal, like that car with a broken back window, popped ignition and stuff like that, that is the lowest on the priority list." 

Nalett's Facebook group now includes about 31,000 watchers who look out for stolen cars and post to the page. He says in the last three years, the group has helped to identify and recover more than 4,500 stolen vehicles. 

Searching for solutions

The Cook County Sheriff's office has been exploring ways to prevent car theft and make it easier for law enforcement to track vehicles when they are stolen. 

Last year the department introduced a tracker program. Anyone with a vehicle registered in the county can fill out a form to give consent for law enforcement to access vehicle tracking information through their manufacturer if their car is taken illegally. A sticker in the windshield indicates the car is part of the program. 

Since its launch in October of last year, nearly 9,500 cars have been signed up — a fraction of the 1.5 million registered cars in Cook County. But so far only three of those cars have been stolen. No one was arrested in those cases. 

"We've only had a couple of them because we think the sticker is actually deterring people. We're able to track the car immediately," said Dart. 

But Dart says it's not enough to just recover a stolen vehicle. 

"In the old days, that was considered the home run. There was a theft. You got the car back. The reality is now I think people are finally waking up. What is happening with that car in that interim between what was stolen and when it was recovered? And that's the problem," said Dart. 

As for Lisa Nisco in New York, she's still waiting.   

A year later, the stolen vehicle she bought remains idle in her driveway. She has not recouped a penny and she's not allowed to drive the car she paid for. 

"Here I am, I'm a victim of a stolen vehicle and they're not doing anything about it," she said. 

In an email, the NYPD told CBS News that Nisco's case "remains an active and ongoing investigation." 

Meanwhile, more than a dozen American cities including New York, Baltimore and Chicago are suing automakers Kia and Hyundai. They allege the automakers left out certain anti-theft features that have made their cars easier to steal. 

The automakers want the suits thrown out, saying they should not be held liable. They blame "lax policing and prosecution policies" as well as budget cuts in public safety.  

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