auto

Putting the brakes on auto theft

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.

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.

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