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18 Things Car Thieves Won’t Tell You

Updated: Jul. 23, 2021

Is your car about to be stolen? Experts reveal what catches a car thief’s eye when looking for a new target and how you can protect your vehicle.

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These are the cars we steal the most

The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) compiles an annual Hot Wheels report, which lists the top ten most stolen cars in the United States. Here are the top targets from the most recent report and the most stolen model year for each:

  1. Honda Accord (1997)
  2. Honda Civic (1998)
  3. Ford Pickup (full size) (2006)
  4. Chevrolet Pickup (full size) (2004)
  5. Toyota Camry (2016)
  6. Nissan Altima (2015)
  7. Dodge Pickup (full size) (2001)
  8. Toyota Corolla (2015)
  9. Chevrolet Impala (2008)
  10. Jeep Cherokee/Grand Cherokee (2000)
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Close up of Tire tread old car
Chirachai Phitayachamrat/Shutterstock

We love older cars

When you think of the car thieves you see in movies or TV shows, they’re usually after high end, luxury sports cars. And while those do get stolen in real life, it doesn’t happen nearly as often as you would think. Thieves target older cars because they’re much easier to steal.

“In the 2000s, most vehicles started to come equipped with more advanced ignition systems such as chipped keys that need to be in proximity to the dash for the car to start,” says Marc Hinch, an auto theft investigator and creator of stolen911.com. “Many of the vehicles prior to this time are easy to start if you know how to manipulate the ignition.”

If your car was built more than 20 years ago, Hinch recommends taking extra security precautions, like installing steering wheel locks, aftermarket alarm systems, or ignition immobilizers. There are even GPS tracking systems that can send you alerts if your car starts moving unexpectedly. Trust us, they’re worth the money. What you really need to look out for are these 7 ways you’re wasting money on your car.

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We have a favorite state

Sorry, California residents, but you’re already at risk. California has consistently been the state with the most car thefts since 1960. And according to Frank Scafidi, director of public affairs for the NICB, there has never been a close runner-up.

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Machine engine components Engine Parts

We want your car for the parts

Car thieves aren’t just looking for a new ride. They’re most likely going to resell parts of your car, especially if it has custom wheels, a custom engine, or high-end seats. If not, they’re doing it to help facilitate another crime, go for a joy ride, or win a dare.

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Night crime - the broken window of the car and abduction of things from a box on the forward panel
Shevelev Vladimir/Shutterstock

And sometimes, we don’t even care about the car

Hinch says that car break-ins are actually more common than actual car thefts, mostly because people often forget that they left valuables like laptops and purses in their vehicles.

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Bunch Of Keys on the Car Seats

Don’t assume your neighborhood is safe

Thieves know you’ll think that and act upon it. As part of a plea agreement, a car thief told Hinch that he and his crew would walk through a nice-looking neighborhood at night, checking for unlocked cars. About one out of six unlocked cars had a spare key inside.

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An Image of Notebook Comtuper

If your car gets stolen, it’s probably your fault

Our experts say that a lot of car thefts could have been prevented if the owner had only made sure he locked the car or not left it running when she ran into Starbucks for a quick cup of coffee. These common security slip-ups are basically invitations for thieves to take your vehicle. Another common mistake is leaving valuables in plain sight. Race car driver and automotive expert Lauren Fix says “valuables” include the obvious items like laptops, purses, and GPS units, but that thieves will even go for money in the center console and closed bags that simply look like something of worth may be inside.

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Cars in the parking lot in row

Public parking lots are like a gold mine

Whether they’re at the airport, the mall, the gym, or the stadium, public parking lots and garages are an ideal location for car thefts. There’s a whole assortment of cars to choose from, and many don’t have adequate security. “In short, if the public has access to your vehicle, then it is at risk of theft,” Scafidi says. Avoid leaving your car on the outskirts of a lot, park as close to the building entrance as possible, and make sure your car is in view of a surveillance system.

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Underground parking/garage (shallow DOF; color toned image)
l i g h t p o e t/Shutterstock

The more hidden your car is, the better (for us)

Another reason parking garages are a prime target for car theft is that thieves are less likely to be spotted there, as opposed to somewhere right on the street. Former car thief Steve Fuller told ABC News that he often chose dark, secluded locations for his jobs. “I liked it because it’s quiet. I can hear if somebody was coming,” Fuller said. “All I really have to deal with was somebody coming down from their apartment to get in their vehicle, and at that time in the middle of the night it’s not usually that often.”

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Street lamp with blue sky background.

The way you park makes a difference

Luckily, there are precautions you can take against thieves who frequent parking garages. “Park your vehicle with the front end facing an obstacle, such as a wall or guardrail, whenever possible,” Fix tells Reader’s Digest. “This makes it harder for thieves to tow or roll your car away if they can’t get it started.” If you’re on the street, she recommends parking under a light, turning the wheels toward the curb, and locking the steering wheel. That’ll make it harder for someone to tow away your car.

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Pretty young woman leaning out of car window

We study your habits

As unsettling as it is, car thieves may spy on you and your car for extended periods of time to figure out the best plan of attack. Hinch recalls a case that involved a series of warm-up thefts, where thieves would scout for vehicles that owners left running unattended so they would warm up on cold mornings. “I remember reading detailed notes such as, ‘Man warms up blue Yukon at San Felipe and Ross every morning at 7:25 a.m. Goes back inside and comes out with daughters five minutes later to take them to school,’” he says. “Later, during the interview after his arrest, the suspect stated the notes were valuable intel to be sold or traded if it turned out he didn’t use it himself.” Make sure you know the 13 signs your house is being watched.

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Cropped shot of a professional mechanic shaking hands with his client car on repair on the background partnership agreement deal service people gesture owner professionalism trust experience worker
Zoriana Zaitseva/Shutterstock

We work together

In fact, Hinch says that some thieves will offer a finder’s fee to someone who can provide a location, photos, and/or any other details about a certain car they’re looking for. “Crews looking for a particular type of vehicle to steal will put out bounties for this type of information,” he says. “This info could come from somebody who just drives by and sees a target vehicle or maybe a security guard who can tell the thieves the schedule of a target. I’ve seen texts on crooks’ phones such as, ‘He parks the car every day at 8:30 on the west side of the lot’ [and] ‘Comes back out around 12:00.’”

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We have our own specialties

According to Hinch, some thieves only steal what they know, meaning they’re masters at stealing their chosen model and make of car. “If a thief knows how to steal one Camaro, he knows how to steal them all,” Hinch explains. “[For] example, thieves who steal Chevy Camaros know how to silence the stock alarms so it can’t be heard when they break into the car. They know where the stock tracking system (On-Star) is located and quickly unplug it.”

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There’s a secret key in your car you probably don’t know about

It’s called a valet key, and it can usually unlock the driver’s door and start the car. “A valet key is typically contained in the owner’s manual, in a little sleeve at the back of the manual,” Scafidi says. “Or it can be encased in a plastic index card-sized insert where you simply pop it out of the insert and you can use it as a regular key.” He notes that many new cars have a fob that enables a push-button start, not a regular key, but there are allegedly devices that can capture the signals from the fob and use them to gain access to a keyless car. Find out the 30 things your car mechanic won’t tell you.

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Business people walking from the job in busy city street. Elegant businessman in the people crowd walking and texting on the phone.
Nick Starichenko/Shutterstock

We’re hard to spot

You probably won’t be able to pick out a car thief on the street. Car thieves blend into crowds so no one gets suspicious of what they’re about to do. That’s why you need to take extra precautions to keep thieves out.

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Nick Beer/Shutterstock

We don’t like stickers

One simple but surprisingly effective way to throw off a potential thief is to put a sticker in your rear window that suggests you have an alarm or tracking system set up in your car. If they suspect there’s a chance they could get caught, thieves are more likely to pass up that car for an easier steal.

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The door car open window glass with blue sky view.
Pongsak A/Shutterstock

We are relentless

Our experts all agree: Once a thief sets his eyes on the prize, he’ll do whatever it takes to get it. As Hinch explained, he could have perfected the mechanics of breaking into your specific car model. Scafidi says a “slim jim” tool is often used to open locked doors on older cars. Otherwise, they may opt for the classic “smash and grab,” as Fix calls it, where you’re left with a broken window and stolen property. One surefire invitation to car thieves? Seeing an open window.

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This car has been wheel-cramped because of illegal parking

The extra precautions really do work

If your car is 20 years or older or is on the list of the most stolen cars in America, going to extra lengths to protect your vehicle could mean the difference between a normal trip to the mall and one that ends with a missing car. Fix advises that you have your Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) chemically etched on your windows, which makes it harder for thieves to resell your car’s parts. You can get this service done at a car dealership or a local police department.

“Use anti-theft systems in your car such as external steering wheel locks, hood locks, tire locks, kill switches, car alarms, and tracking systems such as Lojack,” she adds. “Bonus: Having an anti-theft system might qualify you for a discount on your comprehensive car insurance.” Next, don’t miss these 21 secrets burglars don’t want you to know.