If you’ve ever aimlessly wandered around in a crowded parking lot, you probably have a notion of what it feels like to have your vehicle stolen. There’s that sense of dread, unease and confusion as you think, “It has to be here somewhere. My car couldn’t have just driven away.”

Well, yes — it could.

Every 26.4 seconds, another car is stolen in the United States, according to a report by the National Insurance Crime Bureau. The good news is that the number of car thefts has been decreasing over the last three years. The bad news is that the recovery rate of stolen autos is also down.

In late 2007, the National Insurance Crime Bureau came out with a report indicating that 1,192,809 cars had been stolen in 2006, down 40,000 from the year before. And of those 1 million cars, 700,000 were not recovered. No one can say for sure what fate befalls each car, but they are believed to be spirited overseas, taken apart for parts and in some cases, fraudulently reported stolen in order to get insurance money.

3 ways to reduce carjacking or theft

It’s also discouraging to consider that car thefts may start becoming more common if the economy continues to worsen.

So if you’re worried about your wheels being taken away — and recognize that insurance can protect you only so much — there are preventive measures you can take to protect your car from being stolen, or at least make life easier if it is taken.

Protect yourself: Think like a car thief

Knowledge is power when it comes to protecting yourself, so for starters, know why thieves might want your car. Almost always, a thief wants your car for parts or to sell it on the black market.

Sometimes your car is wanted for use in another robbery, and in other instances thieves are just as interested in taking something from inside your vehicle as driving it away in its entirety.

Don’t be an attractive target

You already know not to leave your wallet or purse in view of passers-by. But it can get harder to remember to hide your cell phone, iPod, laptop or any other fun gadgetry you’re hauling around. Among the favorite items of the underworld element are GPS units, so conceal it and the stand it’s mounted on — leaving that out can be a sign to a robber to search your car.

Here are three additional rules to lessen the chances of a car theft or carjacking from Tod W. Burke, a former police officer who is now a criminal justice professor at Radford University.

1. Leave space to escape.“When you’re at a stoplight or a stop sign, give yourself some space between cars, so if someone comes up, you can pull out,” says Burke. “You can also vary your routine. If someone really wanted your vehicle, you may be making it easier for them if you’re always taking the same route. And if you have a choice, drive in the farthest lane from the sidewalk. People who carjack aren’t likely to go across the lane to get to your car.”

2. Lock the car.That sounds like obvious advice, but it isn’t. For instance, in and around Houston, for the first few months of 2008, there were approximately 30 auto thefts in cemeteries. A gang of thieves made off with the cars, knowing full well that people tend to leave their vehicles unlocked when they’re at a quiet, peaceful and seemingly safe place among friends, like at a funeral.

3. Keep copies of your records.If your registration and car title are in the glove compartment, a theft means all of your paperwork — everything you’ll want to show the police — will be gone.

You should jot down your car’s vehicle identification number, or VIN, and have it in your house, because the authorities will want that information, too. (If your car is stolen and you don’t have it, your mechanic may have it stored in his computer.) And keep in mind, losing that paperwork to a criminal is also a great way to be a victim of identity theft. Burke also points out that a thief will now know where you live. If they like your car, maybe they’ll love what you have inside your house.

Security the ‘MacGyver’ way

The odds of getting your car back increase if you have a security tracking system like OnStar, LoJack or one of the many other brands available. But not everyone can afford a security system, or feels that it’s worth putting one into their trusty, dependable-but-aging car.

If you want security on the cheap, there are a couple methods to consider.

Rig up your own. This was the strategy taken by John Smart, founder of a Web hosting company in Eugene, Ore. “Several years ago, when I was driving an older car, I went to RadioShack and purchased a flashing LED for $4, a resistor pack for $2 and a 9-volt battery for $3. I put them together and had a flashing light in my windscreen, making it look like I had a car alarm.”

Smart doesn’t guarantee that his method kept thieves away — “my car was not that great,” he says — but on the other hand, it was never stolen.

Take a piece of the car with you. Whenever Michael Schultz, a public relations professional in Westford, Mass., parks in a high-risk area, he pops up the hood and disconnects one of the spark plug connectors. “It’s easy to put back in running order when I return,” says Schultz, who had his car stolen when he was younger, and has adopted this strategy ever since, “but there’s no way even an experienced thief will get that car started if they break in, and no car thief has the time to open the hood and examine the engine to determine why a car won’t start.”

Top 10 list of stolen cars
According to the National Crime Insurance Bureau, the following cars were the most stolen in 2006, the most recent national numbers available:
1. 1995 Honda Civic 6. 1994 Chevrolet full size C/K 1500 pickup
2. 1991 Honda Accord 7. 1994 Nissan Sentra
3. 1989 Toyota Camry 8. 1994 Dodge Caravan
4. 1997 Ford F-150 9. 1994 Saturn SL
5. 2005 Dodge Ram pickup 10. 1990 Acura Integra
Find out which cars are stolen most in your state with this list from State Farm.

On the other hand, some sophisticated thieves have been known to use tow trucks, or maybe you’ll be unfortunate enough to have your vehicle broken into by a thug with his own spare spark plug. If someone wants your vehicle badly enough, he’ll probably find a way to take it, so no matter how you protect yourself, it’s probably wise to brace yourself that sometimes a theft can happen to the best of us.

Geoff Williams is a freelance writer in Loveland, Ohio.

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