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Blocking car thieves -- start with the key

Car-theft prevention systems are becoming big business as the prices of autos skyrocket to levels baby boomers used to pay for homes.

Car owners spent $227 million for electronic anti-theft systems, such as keyless entry and vehicle tracking systems in 2001, compared with $142 million in 1995, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

If you want to keep those expensive wheels, start with the basics: When you stop your car, take the key out of the ignition and lock the doors. Not everyone does. The New Haven, Conn., Police Department says nearly one in five stolen vehicles is left unlocked with the key in the ignition.

Use a layered approach
Police and security experts recommend a layered approach to preventing car theft -- that is, use more than one anti-theft method to defeat the thieves. How much you want to spend depends on how much you think it's worth keeping crooks away from that expensive car. Anti-theft devices range from under $50 to several hundred dollars.

No single device is foolproof, say the experts.

"Nothing, zero, zilch can absolutely stop the professional car thief," said Rob Painter, an independent auto theft investigator and author of the book, "Auto Theft: Let the Truth Be Known."

"You are trying to slow them down. Gone in 60 seconds, as the movie says. I can have a car in 20 seconds -- and so can a lot of car thieves."

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Not like in the movies
Most of the car-theft techniques you see in movies -- such as reaching under the dash to hot-wire the ignition -- are behind the times, said Painter. "Hot-wiring went out in 1969 with the locked steering column," he said. "Most of the stuff they show on the screen is 30 years behind."

Active or passive
Car anti-theft devices come in two forms -- active and passive. Active anti-theft devices include devices such as The Club that lock down the steering wheel. If you have to do something to arm it, it's called active. Passive systems are those that automatically arms themselves each time the vehicle is shut off, the ignition key removed or a door is shut. Insurance companies tend to give higher discounts for passive systems.

The more layers car thieves have to go through, the more likely it is they'll move on to another car, say experts. Painter says that he can remove The Club within a few seconds by cutting the steering wheel, which is much weaker than the lock. He recalls one case in which the a car thief removed The Club then physically beat the female car owner with it.

Manufacturer-equipped anti-theft systems should not be used alone, warns Painter.

"The bad thing about a manufacturer's system is that if a thief finds a way to defeat the anti-theft device on, say, one Ford 150, he can defeat the devices on all Ford 150s anywhere in the country."

LoJack and OnStar
Tracking devices also exist, such as the LoJack, which emits a radio signal that police can use to zero in on a car's location after it has been stolen. Another is the OnStar program which often comes with high-end cars. They are still not foolproof because the OnStar system can be jammed and the LoJack's signal is only good for police picking up the signal in a limited area of about 40 miles. Police love the LoJack because in some cases, they've followed the LoJack signal to auto chop shops or dumping spots for other stolen cars.

Painter and other experts like adding after-market systems to cars because they are often better hidden and the diversity of the products makes it difficult for the car thief to know them all.

The person who installs an after-market anti-theft system is as important as the system itself, warns Matt Swanston, staff director of communications for the Consumer Electronics Association. "Be certain that the installer is certified by Mobile Electronics Certified Professionals," Swanston says. "You don't want to have Uncle Henry install a system you bought at some auto parts store.

As anti-theft devices become more sophisticated, the bad guys find ways to defeat them. The brawn of a tow truck is an increasingly popular weapon in the thief's arsenal.

There are also systems that sound an alarm, and -- as anyone who has ever been in a large, crowded parking lot knows -- they often can emit false alarms. What's more, a wailing car alarm system rarely attracts attention anymore.

Some people have their car alarm systems trigger a pager. It might not be enough to stop the theft, but will be enough for owners to notify police promptly.

Common sense comes first
Meanwhile, remember these common-sense tips:

  • Take out the key and lock your car.
  • Park it in a locked garage at night, if possible. More than half of auto thefts occur in residential areas.
  • Park in attended lots. Autos are five times more likely to be stolen from an unattended lot than from the street or an attended lot. More than half the cars are stolen at night.

Rod Gibson is a freelance writer based in Georgia.

-- Posted: Sept. 23, 2003

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