If you have a car more than 10 years old, you may think that it is too old for thieves to bother with. That would be a big mistake. The annual "Hot Wheels" list of most-stolen cars released today shows models from the 1990s as the biggest target.
The National Insurance Crime Bureau compiled the list of cars stolen most often in 2010 from FBI data. The 1994 Honda Accord, the 1995 Honda Civic and the 1991 Toyota Camry are the top three. Pickups of slightly more recent vintage from Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge (like the 2004 Dodge Ram, at left) also made the list; the Detroit brands held six of the top 10 spots. (Keep reading to see the full list.)
Why do old cars top the list? They are easier to steal, and chop-shop thieves can turn them into parts worth more than the car itself. In a slow economy, people are keeping their cars longer and demand for replacement parts is strong. And the Hondas and Toyota Camry atop the list are durable models that sold strongly year after year -- creating a solid aftermarket for replacement parts.
The NICB, a nonprofit group supported by the auto industry, offers a quick lesson in chop-shop economics. A car like the 1994 Honda Accord (at right) is worth about $1,900 if bought from a private seller, according to Kelley Blue Book. But parts harvested from that car can be worth as much as $5,000, says Frank Scafidi, the NICB's public affairs director. Cars from the 1990s also had fewer factory-installed anti-theft devices and thus are easier to steal, Scafidi adds.
While the NICB list rolls up the national figures, the "hot" list can vary considerably by region and state. For states with big urban centers, like New York and California, the most-stolen models look similar to the national list. But in a rural state like Wyoming, the top five theft targets are all pickups. To check your state, go to the NICB site and click on "Choose a State" in the theft report. (See Auto Theft: Worst Cities for Stolen Cars.)
So what can you do if your car is on the list? Unlike a new or nearly new car, paying to insure an older car probably against theft isn't worth it. Over a couple of years, your premiums combined with the deductible payment could well exceed the value of the car.
Here's a look at suggestions from the NICB.
Discourage the thieves: Many car boosters -- whether professional or amateur -- are looking for the easiest target. So install a device that will make your old car harder to steal while sitting in a parking lot at the train station or the shopping center. For around $50, you can buy The Club or other steering wheel lock; a "tire claw" lock that will keep one wheel from moving runs about $80. Either will add to the difficulty of stealing your car or truck.
Sound the alarm: For $200 to $300 at an auto electronics shop you can have an alarm installed 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 make them seek another target.
Kill the engine: More recently built cars, trucks and SUVs offer a built-in system that prevents the vehicle from starting unless the engine computer gets a signal from the precisely matching key. In an older car, you can get professional installation of a so-called kill switch for around $100. 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.
No device is foolproof. "Anti-theft devices won't help you with a thief who just backs up a flatbed tow truck and takes the car," notes the NICB's Scafidi. But your precautionary measures can deter many less-accomplished thieves.
Here is the NICB's list of the most-stolen cars, pickups, minivans and SUVs during 2010:
1. 1994 Honda Accord
2. 1995 Honda Civic
3. 1991 Toyota Camry
4. 1999 Chevrolet full-size pickup
5. 1997 Ford F-150 pickup
6. 2004 Dodge Ram pickup
7. 2000 Dodge Caravan
8. 1994 Acura Integra
9. 2002 Ford Explorer
10. 1999 Ford Taurus