After having decreased for 23 years in a row, the number of stolen vehicles increased in 2015*. According to the FBI, a total of 713,063 motor vehicles were stolen in the United States in 2015—a 3 percent increase compared to 2014. One of the main reasons for this is that a growing number of drivers are becoming accustomed to leaving their cars unlocked with their keys inside.
The National Insurance Crime Bureau reports that one out of every eight cars stolen in 2015 were “freebies,” which means they were left unattended, unlocked with the keys or key fobs inside. That number represents a 22 percent jump in this kind of motor vehicle theft over 2014.
Although these numbers are alarming, they’re not necessarily surprising. For many years, car theft was on the decline, which may have led to laxity among car owners. In addition, new technology may have contributed to the rise in car thefts. For example, new keyless entry systems with push-button starters can make it easier for car owners to forget their key fobs inside when leaving the car, allowing criminals easy access to it.
The good news is that these thefts are avoidable. In addition to ridding themselves of their own bad habits, car owners can take basic precautionary measures and use a few simple, affordable devices to help prevent car theft. Here’s how you can avoid helping crooks steal your car.
Use a Remote Starter
Freebie thefts are particularly common in the fall and winter months, likely because many car owners tend to start their cars to warm them up, before running back inside to grab their coffee or lunch, leaving the vehicle on with the keys in the ignition. Sitting in a cold car on a frigid winter morning is certainly unpleasant, so it’s understandable that someone might want to warm their car for a few minutes before hitting the road.
But, given the very real risk of having your car stolen if you do that, it makes sense to consider a more secure alternative for raising the temperature inside your car, such as a remote starter system. It allows you to warm up your car without having to put the key in the ignition or even unlock it. This eliminates the risk of leaving your car unattended and unlocked with the keys inside.
How does a remote starter work? It’s basically a transmitter that connects to a receiver attached to your car’s starter mechanism. When activated, it starts the car, including the temperature controls. If you set the temperature prior to turning off the vehicle the evening before, the car will warm to that temperature the next morning once the remote starter has been pressed.
Install a Kill Switch
Another way to thwart car thieves is to install a kill switch, which prevents someone who is not aware of it from starting the car. It’s a low-tech device with an on/off toggle that can be connected to the ignition circuit, the fuel pump, or the battery. You can install it yourself but if you don’t know your way around your car’s electrical wiring, have a professional mechanic do it instead.
A kill switch is a very effective deterrent to car thieves, so long as it is placed somewhere inside the car where thieves will not be able to see it, such as in the glove compartment, under the dashboard, or under a seat. Once installed, you turn on the kill switch before leaving your car, disabling the engine and preventing thieves from starting the car without first turning off the kill switch.
Park in Safe, Well-Lit Areas
In addition to installing new equipment, there are a few precautions that you can take to keep thieves away from your car. If you have a garage, park in it and keep it locked. (Don’t use your remote starter if your car is parked in your garage, as this can cause a dangerous build-up of carbon monoxide in your home.)
If you don’t have a garage, be sure to park your car in a location that will make it a less attractive target for criminals. This means parking in safe, well-lit areas, as thieves are much less likely to try to break into a vehicle that is easily visible to passersby.
Remember to take all valuables out of the car, as these might entice would-be thieves. This includes items such as cell phones, laptops, purses, and wallets. Also, avoid leaving your car’s title in the car itself. Having that and your car’s registration would make it easy for the thief to sell your vehicle before they’re caught.
What a Car Theft Means for Your Insurance
Sometimes, even when we plan and prepare, the unthinkable can happen. If your car is stolen, you’ll have to report the theft to the police. But that isn’t all.
Assuming that you have comprehensive coverage, you’ll also have to file a claim with your insurance company. While you wait for the claim to be processed, you’ll probably need to rent a car. The rental car that you end up with might not have the same features as your stolen car. This will depend largely on the type of coverage you have.
If, for example, you have only basic Transportation Expense coverage, you might not be able to rent a vehicle that is comparable in class, size and options to the one you lost, unless you’re willing to pay for any additional expenses yourself.
And before your insurance company will pay out for the stolen car, you will have to pay your deductible, which depending on your policy, might be substantial.
Furthermore, if your car is stolen, you might face some additional—and quite substantial—expenses. If for example, you still owe money on the car’s loan or lease, part of the money you receive from your insurer will go toward paying off the loan or the lease.
Note that the insurer will not pay the entire purchase price of the vehicle, but only the current cash value of the vehicle, after factoring in your deductible and your car’s depreciation. If the cash value of the stolen car is less than what you owe on the car, you will have to pay the difference out of your own pocket.
Having the Right Insurance Coverage
Although some car thefts can be avoided by taking a few precautions, it’s best to have the appropriate insurance coverage in order to protect against an unwanted scenario. Two types of insurance coverage are particularly useful should you find yourself the victim of a car theft:
Gap insurance. If the amount you owe on your car is greater than the current value of your car, you may find yourself unable to pay off the loan and afford a replacement car. But if you have gap insurance, it can help cover the difference between what you owe and what the insurance has paid out.
New Car Replacement insurance. With new car replacement insurance, your insurance company will replace the car so long as the theft happens before you reach a set number of miles or a set period of time.
Just remember that you need to have these coverages in place before the theft occurs, so it pays to plan ahead—in addition to taking your keys and locking your car.
*This is the most recent year for which car theft statistics are available.