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Carjacking! Protecting Yourself From Gun-Toting Thieves

By Scott Lewis, private investigator

Have you noticed the headlines lately?  Carjackings are happening here, there and everywhere. Southfield, Oak Park, Bloomfield Township and Detroit have all had well-publicized carjacking incidents in recent weeks.  And while violent crime is down in the City of Detroit, carjackings are holding steady according to David Martin, a researcher at Wayne State University's Center for Urban Studies.

So what's going on here, and how can you reduce your chances of being victimized by this frightening crime?

Ironically, one thing fueling the carjacking problem is new technology designed to make cars harder to steal.  Years ago all it took for a thief to steal your car was a brick and a screwdriver: Punch out the door lock; break out the ignition switch, twist a couple of wires together and drive off.

It's not that simple anymore.

Today it's virtually impossible to steal a newer model car without the keys or a tow truck.  Modern cars have engine immobilizers that get a signal from a computer chip in the key.  If you don't have the key, the car won't start, period.  That's one reason thieves are now lying in wait for unsuspecting drivers and stealing their cars at gunpoint.

The other factor driving up the number of carjacking incidents is the lure of quick, easy cash for those who chose to make their living preying on the rest of us.  The money is in the parts, according to Wayne State's expert on crime statistics and trends.

"The carjacking modus operandi is being used more and more to simply get the car for its easily harvested parts, and not necessarily for the whole vehicle," said Martin.

The most popular parts for thieves are expensive rims, navigation systems and catalytic converters.  Those parts can be unloaded on the black market for instant cash.

Like most street crimes, being a victim of a carjacking is a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and not paying attention to what's going on around you.  I asked David Martin to crunch some numbers and come up with some information that can lessen your chances of being victimized by a carjacker.

Remember; wrong time, wrong place.

Martin says the highest risk for carjacking is between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.  He says the highest risk locations are commercial business strips where the armed thieves can hang out without drawing too much attention.  Carjackers will be loitering or even hiding out of site in these places waiting to strike.  Gas stations and party stores are at the top of the list and Martin says you're most likely to be accosted while you're returning to your car.

There are variations on these common scenarios too.  One is when you're just driving through a neighborhood, you come to a stop and someone walks up to your car with a gun pulled and orders you to get out.  Another is the "bump and rob" where thieves will bump your car from behind, and when you get out to check for damage they get the drop on you.  A third scenario is where the carjacker is loitering outside of your home and strikes as you're heading to your car in the driveway.

While there is no guarantee you will never be the victim of a carjacking, Martin provided some good common sense advice to help put the odds in your favor.  Here are ten easy things you can do.

Before you enter your car:

  • While walking to your car, have the keys in your hand for a quick entry.  Scan the area around you as you approach your car.  If you see someone loitering around your car turn around and get help.  Always make sure you look into the rear seat or hatch before you get in.
  • Always park in a well-lighted area.

While you are in your car:   

  • Always lock the doors and keep your windows up high enough so a potential carjacker can't get their arm inside your window to unlock the door.
  • Keep a close eye on your surroundings.  Be aware of any activity near your car.  Criminals look for easy targets.  They pick people who don't seem to be paying attention.
  • When stopping in traffic always leave enough room between your car and the one in front of you so you won't be boxed in.  If someone approaches your car, drive off.
  • Be suspicious of people approaching your car, asking for directions or handing out flyers.  This could be a ploy.
  • If a suspicious person approaches your car, drive away carefully.
  • If another driver bumps your car, keep your doors locked and windows up.  Drive to the nearest police or fire station, or a well-lighted populated area.
  • Be especially alert when using drive-up ATM's.
  • Keep an eye on your rear view mirror.  If you suspect someone is following you, don't go home.  Again, drive to the nearest police or fire station or a well-lighted, populated area.

Carjacking is not a new crime.  It first came to the public's attention in the early 90's, and in fact, the term carjacking was coined right here in Detroit.  According to Wikipedia, Detroit News reporter Scott Bowles and editor EJ Mitchell originated the term.  It was coined in an investigative report into the rash of what police then called "robbery armed unlawful driving away an automobile".  The story focused on the murder of a 22 year-old Detroit drugstore cashier who was killed when she refused to surrender her Suzuki Sidekick to a gunman.

And that brings me to the final piece of advice from safety experts. If you should ever be approached by a carjacker, don't make that mistake: don't resist, especially if the thief has a weapon.  You can always replace car rims, navigation systems and catalytic converters.  Your safety is paramount.

Veteran TV investigative reporter Scott Lewis is now in private practice.  Scott Lewis Private Investigations is a premier, full service agency serving the state of Michigan.  If you need private investigation services, contact Scott at 1-855-411-Lewis (5394), email him at or check out his website at

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