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How to Prevent Auto Theft

Not finding your car tucked away where you parked it is gut-wrenching and it’s becoming an all too common experience. Auto theft is rising, fueled by an unprecedented combination of escalating car values, higher demand for car parts, and a general spike in crime.

There’s a lot you can do to help ensure that your car, or some of its more valuable parts, won’t go missing.

According to the latest National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) report, a vehicle was stolen every 36 seconds in 2020. Thieves stole 85,000 more vehicles in 2020 than in 2019. Most signs point toward even more troubling statistics in 2021.

With immobilizers, unique key fobs, and other features installed at the factory, you may think today’s cars arrive theft-proof. Unfortunately, that’s hardly the case. Thieves, and the nefarious tech they can acquire, have gotten smarter. Fortunately, there are ways to help protect yourself from becoming a victim of auto theft.

In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about car-related theft and how to avoid it. But first, you’ll need these ten vital tips to consider.

10 Tips to Help Prevent Your Car from Being Stolen

  1. Be Smart About Where You Park
  2. Lock Your Doors, Close Your Windows, Take Your Keys
  3. Buy an Easy-to-Use Theft-Deterrent Device
  4. Get a Good Alarm
  5. Add a Tracking Device
  6. Don’t Leave Your Car Running Unattended
  7. Install an Immobilizer
  8. Etch Your Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) Into the Glass
  9. Check the NICB Database Before You Buy a Used Car
  10. Double-Check the VIN

1. Be Smart About Where You Park

If you can’t store your car in a secure private garage, parking it in a well-lit area near other vehicles is the best way to discourage theft. Thieves will be obvious in the light of day and are less likely to break into a car at that time.

If you don’t have a private garage attached to your home, a parking lot requiring a transmitter for entry and exit will make it harder for a thief to abscond with your vehicle. When you park outdoors in a large lot, try to park close to other vehicles with more pedestrian traffic.

And, of course, be sure to lock your doors. Many newer cars can connect to a smartphone app allowing remote locking and unlocking, plus location services showing you exactly where your vehicle is parked.

2. Lock Your Doors, Close Your Windows, Take Your Keys

Unattended car with thief

Even though it goes without saying, we’re saying it: Lock your doors.

Be sure your car’s windows are closed, including the sunroof or, on pickups, the rear cab window.

It may seem obvious, but be sure to double-check that the key is in your pocket or bag when you walk away from the vehicle. With today’s push-button start systems, it is remarkably easy to forget you tossed the key in the center console or to realize it fell out of your bag and onto the seat. A thief may merely need to see a key to strike.

Lastly, it’s not a great practice to store a key in a lockbox mounted under the vehicle. Thieves know where to look.

3. Buy an Easy-to-Use Auto Theft-Deterrent Device

Thieves don’t want a challenge. Something as simple as a basic steering wheel lock such as The Club can send them onto the next vehicle. While theft-deterrent devices won’t stop a determined thief, most will skip your car for one that’s easier to steal.

Another good idea is to fit a flashing LED light that mimics those used by alarm systems. You can either hard-wire a light or install a small solar-powered one that attaches to the dashboard with an adhesive.

It’s all about encouraging thieves to move on from your vehicle.

4. Get a Good Alarm

Your car probably didn’t come with an alarm system. Aftermarket alarm systems emitting a loud noise — usually the car’s horn, or perhaps an ear-piercing siren — will send most thieves running since they attract so much attention.

A wide variety of car alarms are available, though the best versions require professional installation. A good car audio shop can help steer you in the right direction; though cheap, basic alarms tend to be easy for thieves to bypass — and they may cause trouble down the road should a component fail.

A high-end alarm may have a glass-breakage sensor or a tilt sensor, which will set the alarm should they sense something nefarious occurring.

That said, most new cars have theft-deterrent systems built into their key fobs that make it challenging for a thief without the latest tech to hotwire them.

5. Add a Car-Theft Tracking Device

A tracking device plugs into your car’s On-Board Diagnostic (OBD) port is a simple way to keep tabs on your vehicle, especially if you have a new driver who may occasionally use it.

While not a theft-deterrent, such devices may be crucial for recovering a stolen vehicle. Many different models are on the market, requiring a monthly subscription charge. They may also provide remote vehicle diagnostics, which can be helpful when it comes to troubleshooting problems.

6. Don’t Leave Your Car Running Unattended

The easiest crimes are those of opportunity. A running, unoccupied car parked in a driveway on a cold morning or in front of a convenience store on a hot day practically invites a thief to take it.

It may be tempting to remotely warm your car up while you’re sitting inside having breakfast. Or, you may want to keep the engine on when you run a quick errand but should be sure the car is locked up.

7. Install an Immobilizer to Avoid Auto Theft

While many new cars come from the factory with advanced immobilizer systems that make it difficult for thieves to hotwire them, such elaborate systems were rare until the late 1990s.

A mechanic or technician can install a simple immobilizer that may include a hidden switch. When the “kill switch” is activated, the vehicle may not have any power. The good news is that the thief won’t be taking your car unless he knows where the immobilizer switch is located.

8. Etch Your Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) into the Glass

Thieves may be more interested in your car for its parts, particularly its glass. Those clear panels can get expensive when the broken glass results from a robbery. Yes, it’s quite a cycle.

Having your VIN etched into a corner of the glass will make it difficult for a thief to sell on the black market. If a thief walks by your car and sees its VIN etched into every glass panel, they may keep moving to the next vehicle.

9. Check the NICB Database Before You Buy a Used Car

If you’re thinking about buying a used car — even one from a dealership — it’s worth finding out if it had ever been stolen by plugging the VIN into the NICB database.

While this isn’t a prevention measure per se, the more drivers who routinely check the NICB database, the easier it will be for the police to clamp down on auto theft.

Contact the authorities immediately if you discover that the car you want to buy was stolen.

10. Double-Check the VIN

Before buying the car, make sure that the VIN stamped on the vehicle — it will be in several places on any newer car — matches the title. While areas with emissions or safety inspections will include a VIN verification performed by an inspector, in many places, it is simply too easy for a thief to pass off a stolen car with a title belonging to another vehicle — or even a counterfeit title.

Additionally, in a private sale, you’ll want to confirm that the person listed on the title is also the one selling you the vehicle. Don’t be afraid to check the seller’s identification if you feel something is amiss.

Such measures can help cut down on fraud.

What to Do If Your Car is Stolen?

Man shocked his car is missing from car theft

First, don’t beat yourself up about it. Some thieves are simply that good.

You’ll want to contact the police immediately to file a report. Next, locate all of the vehicle’s pertinent information, including its VIN, license plate number, and details such as the make, model, color, and notable features such as dents or modifications. The more information you can provide to the police, the better. Providing photos will help, too.

After you’ve filed a police report, contact your car insurance provider to tell them that the vehicle got stolen. They may want to see a copy of the police report, too.

Not Just Cars: Catalytic Converter Theft

Sensor for theft avoidance of catalytic converter

The Hollywood-reinforced “chop shop” image is outdated. Today, thieves can grab one of a car’s most valuable components in seconds, and they don’t even need to steal the vehicle itself.

Catalytic converters are an essential part of a vehicle’s emissions system. They take noxious gasses and tame them to less-harmful fumes, which helps keep our air clean. To do so, they require using precious — and expensive — materials, which makes them desirable to thieves who sell them for scrap value.

As a part of a car’s exhaust system, thieves view these parts as, quite literally, low-hanging fruit they can easily access. A thief can slide under a vehicle and cut off its valuable catalytic converter in just minutes using a battery-operated reciprocating saw.

How to Prevent Catalytic Converter Theft

You can take many measures to protect your catalytic converter from tempting thieves.

Some cars are natural targets for thieves. For instance, specific hybrid models have valuable catalytic converters with a high market price. And thieves can easily crawl beneath SUVs as they sit high off the ground. This stance makes it easier and doesn’t attract attention while they get the job done.

If you’re not sure if your car is a likely target, it’s worth calling a local exhaust or muffler specialist to ask them about what cars are popular with local thieves. These specialists will know what models tend to be targeted since they likely have replaced a lot of catalytic converters.

There are specific things you can do if your car is at risk:

  • Etch Your VIN on your catalytic converter.
  • Police departments began offering free engraving in Los Angeles, Seattle, and other cities. Even if you aren’t sure if your car will be a likely target, you can have its license plate or vehicle identification number (VIN) etched in plain view onto the catalytic converter.
  • Build a cage to protect it. Additionally, some shops will weld a plate or cage under your car that blocks its catalytic converter from easy theft. Automakers have traditionally made catalytic converters easy to access since this type of theft was, until recently, relatively uncommon.
  • Program your alarm system to alert you. If you use an aftermarket alarm system with a jolt sensor, you can program it so that it responds to even the slightest jiggling. This system may result in a few unintended alarm activations, but those are easy to ignore compared to a genuine theft attempt.

What Do You Do If Someone Steals Your Catalytic Converter?

muffler shop inspecting catalytic converter

As with any robbery, your first call should be to the authorities to report the incident. Be sure to take good photographs of the car showing where the device was cut out, and then contact your insurer. Typically, insurance covers catalytic converters. The cost of replacing one may max out your deductible.

Before you decide how to replace your stolen catalytic converter, consider the following advice:

  • Take it to a shop. Replacing a catalytic converter is not a do-it-yourself project unless you’re pretty handy with welding exhaust components.
  • Match the catalytic converter to your state. Just what catalytic converter — or converters in some cars — your vehicle needs may depend on where you live. Many coastal states (plus Colorado and New Mexico) follow California’s emissions standards, which may mean that the automaker originally installed a different catalytic converter than they would have for a vehicle sold in, say, Florida. Fitting the wrong catalytic converter may cause the car to run poorly and not pass emissions testing.
  • Shop around for quotes. It’s worth shopping around different muffler and exhaust specialists as well as car dealerships for replacement prices. Be sure to ask if the replacement part is aftermarket or an original equipment item, too. An original equipment catalytic converter may cost more, but it also may be the only type that passes emissions testing in your area. 

Read Related Auto Theft Stories:


Does insurance cover a stolen car?

Insurance will cover a stolen car, but only if you have full coverage — known as comprehensive insurance. A basic liability plan only covers damage you may do to someone else’s car. In most cases, comprehensive insurance is worth the cost.

Which cars are most likely to have catalytic converters stolen?

Thieves will grab any catalytic converter they can easily reach — or any converter that is particularly valuable. High-riding SUVs and pickups are easy for thieves to slide under, while hybrid vehicles tend to use catalytic converters with more precious metals.

How to report a stolen car?

First, contact the police to file a report. You’ll need to provide the car’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), its license plate number, and the make, model, and trim level. You’ll also want to mention any distinguishing features, such as prior damage or modifications.

Which cars are most likely to get stolen?

It varies by region. But the latest data from the National Insurance Crime Bureau indicates that the most popular targets are Ford F-150 and Chevrolet Silverado pickups, as well as older Honda Civic and Accord sedans. The Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, and Toyota Corolla are also popular with thieves.

Andrew Ganz
Andrew Ganz
Andrew Ganz is an author specializing in helping in-market consumers get the most bang for their buck -- and the best car, while they're at it. When not virtually shopping for new and used cars, Andrew can probably be found under the hood of a vintage classic that's rapidly losing fluids.

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