Thieves pounce as peo­ple leave key fobs in cars

Easy-to-start ve­hi­cles make tempt­ing tar­gets

USA TODAY International Edition - - MONEY - Nathan Bomey

Thieves stole more ve­hi­cles in 2017 than they had in any sin­gle year since 2009 — and the big­gest rea­son might have noth­ing to do with crim­i­nals be­ing cun­ning.

A com­bi­na­tion of new tech­nol­ogy and care­less driv­ers spells op­por­tu­nity for many crim­i­nals. And with the av­er­age price of ve­hi­cles climb­ing, there’s added in­cen­tive as well.

With the pro­lif­er­a­tion of push­start but­tons that can be ac­ti­vated as long as the key fob is in­side the ve­hi­cle, it’s eas­ier than ever to drive off with some­one else’s car.

All thieves need to do is find a car where some­one left the key in­side, push the start but­ton and hit the gas.

“You still see a lot of ve­hi­cles get­ting stolen be­cause peo­ple ... make it easy,” said Frank Scafidi, di­rec­tor of pub­lic affairs at the Na­tional In­sur­ance Crime Bu­reau.

Ve­hi­cle thefts to­taled 773,139 in 2017, ac­cord­ing to re­cent FBI sta­tis­tics. That’s up 12.6 per­cent from the all-time low of 686,803 in 2014.

The rate at which cars are be­ing stolen — which mea­sures vol­ume of ve­hi­cles against the U.S. pop­u­la­tion — also rose for a third con­sec­u­tive year in 2017, reach­ing its worst point since 2010.

While au­tomak­ers brag that their ve­hi­cles are safer than ever and that sim­ply hot-wiring a car might not do the trick any­more, that doesn’t mean it’s hard to steal one.

The num­ber of ve­hi­cle thefts in which the crim­i­nal used the key spiked 31 per­cent from 2013 to 2015, ac­cord­ing to an Oc­to­ber 2016 re­port by the crime bu­reau. Dur­ing that three-year stretch, thieves swiped nearly 150,000 ve­hi­cles us­ing that method.

And it may be get­ting worse. Key­less ig­ni­tion was stan­dard equip­ment on 62 per­cent of cars sold in 2018, up from 11 per­cent in 2008, ac­cord­ing to car-buy­ing ad­vice site Ed­munds.

The in­cen­tive for steal­ing ve­hi­cles has reached his­toric highs, as well. The av­er­age price of a new ve­hi­cle was $37,188 in Novem­ber, an all-time high and up about $3,000 from three years ear­lier, ac­cord­ing to Ed­munds.

Some thieves are con­spir­ing with over­seas con­tacts to ship stolen ve­hi­cles out of the coun­try, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional In­sur­ance Crime Bu­reau and the In­ter­na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Auto Theft In­ves­ti­ga­tors. It’s par­tic­u­larly lu­cra­tive for high-end mod­els that can cost much more in for­eign mar­kets.

“Out­bound ship­ping in the USA is not seen as high-risk, and the ports don’t have the avail­able re­sources to check ev­ery ship­ping con­tainer,” Reg Phillips, CEO of On­tario-based Ve­hi­cle Road Safety So­lu­tions and in­ter­na­tional board chair of the auto theft in­vesti- ga­tors as­so­ci­a­tion, said in an email. The FBI and the Na­tional High­way Traffic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

To be sure, theft re­mains far be­low its all-time high of 1.66 mil­lion ve­hi­cles in 1991.

Scafidi said in the long run, tech­nol­ogy will likely make it more difficult for thieves to get away with en­tire ve­hi­cles.

For ex­am­ple, finger­print scan­ning could be adopted to en­sure only the owner can drive the ve­hi­cle.

Keys con­trib­ute to trend

An­other po­ten­tial rea­son for the in­crease: Thieves can use key fobs dropped in a pub­lic place to find a ve­hi­cle by re­motely ac­ti­vat­ing its horn with a tap of a but­ton.

That’s what hap­pened to Maumelle, Arkansas, res­i­dent Kelsie Beaulieu af­ter her boyfriend re­cently dropped her car keys when they went bowl­ing.

“I never thought I’d have my car stolen,” Beaulieu said. “As soon as we walked out­side, I was like, ‘Um, where’s my car?’ And my heart sank a lit­tle bit.”

Days later, the po­lice ar­rested a sus­pect and re­cov­ered her 2011 Mazda3 sedan. But its in­te­rior had been trashed.


Ac­cord­ing to the FBI, thieves stole 773,139 ve­hi­cles in the United States in 2017, mark­ing an eight-year high.

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