Car Theft: Tips for Keeping Your Vehicle Safe

By Sean Tucker 02/21/2023 8:00am

Car thief breaking into a car windowar

Quick Facts About Automobile Theft

  • Some thieves use technology, from stealing key fob signals to using tile tracking devices.
  • To prevent thieves from stealing your older Hyundai or Kia with a push-button start, you can purchase a kit at a dealership or other authorized installer at a cost of about $170.
  • Avoid “puffing” or keeping your vehicle switched on while you run an errand. It makes the vehicle an easy target for thieves.

Car theft increased dramatically in the United States during most of 2022. According to the nonprofit National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), thieves stole nearly 745,000 vehicles through September 2022, representing a 24% increase compared to the same time period in 2019. NICB, a research group funded by the insurance industry, said that’s a total of $6.6 billion worth of vehicle theft losses.

Car theft had declined for two years before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. But theft is on the rise due to a social media craze showing how easy it is to steal older Kia and Hyundai vehicles. Additionally, catalytic converter theft continues to be a problem. 

In this story, we’ll address the states most affected by car thefts, plus the most commonly stolen vehicles. We’ll also provide tips on what you can do to protect your vehicle and stay safe.

The Risk Isn’t the Same Everywhere

The rise in vehicle theft isn’t universal, the NICB reports. Some areas saw dramatic spikes. Washington, D.C., residents saw their risk rise 40% in just one year. Colorado saw a similar rise, nearly 36%.

RELATED: Does Auto Insurance Cover Theft?

Bakersfield, California, has had the highest auto theft rate in the country for the last two years. But there is little pattern to the numbers. The five areas with the highest theft rates represent both coasts and several states in between and include heavily urban and mostly rural states.

Thieves Use Tech to Target Vehicles

Some thieves use technology, from stealing key fob signals to using tile tracking devices.

They will scan a targeted home for key fob signals and, using a device, can hack a signal and transmit it to another person by the car. Depending on the strength, the criminals can break into or even steal the vehicle.

Criminals are also using tracking devices like Apple AirTags. Law enforcement authorities say thieves started hiding tracking devices on the car, such as behind a license plate of a targeted vehicle. Some vehicle owners keep tracking devices in their cars to locate them if someone steals them, which muddies the tech situation a bit.

If you find yourself in the situation of a stolen vehicle with a tracking device, always call authorities and alert them first before trying to track it down by yourself.

Other thieves recently began targeting older Kia and Hyundai vehicles with push buttons to start the cars and a mechanical key, not a key fob. Then, the thieves use a USB cord to hot-wire the car.

Some base model Hyundai and Kia vehicles from 2010-2021 lack electronic immobilizers, which is standard equipment on many other brands. Engineers program immobilizers to stop thieves from bypassing the ignition.

A Kia spokesman confirmed to KBB that this claim is only accurate for base model cars. Most Hyundai and Kia models from that period contain immobilizers, but not the least-expensive versions.

“While all of our vehicles meet or exceed federal motor vehicle safety standards, unfortunately, our vehicles have been targeted in a coordinated effort on social media,” a Hyundai representative told the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

All 2022 and 2023 Kia and Hyundai models, including base models, include immobilizers. Kia and Hyundai have worked with police departments in high-car-theft cities to make mechanical steering wheel locks available to owners at no charge and plan to release an electronic retrofit kit to help eliminate theft risk.

The kit is available for purchase and installation at dealerships and other authorized installers at a cost of about $170.

States With the Highest Auto Theft Rates

According to the NICB, between 2016 and 2020, these states had the highest auto theft rate per 100,000 residents:

  • Washington, D.C.*
  • Colorado
  • California
  • Missouri
  • New Mexico

* The NICB treats Washington, D.C., as a state for statistical purposes.

States With the Lowest Auto Theft Rates

  • Massachusetts
  • Puerto Rico*
  • Vermont
  • New Hampshire
  • Maine

* The NICB treats Puerto Rico as a state for statistical purposes.

The Most Commonly Stolen Cars

The list of commonly stolen cars mirrors the list of best-selling vehicles most years because best-sellers are readily available, and their parts are worth more since they are in high demand.

Here are the 10 most commonly stolen cars in 2021 (the most recent year for NICB statistics):

Rank Vehicle Make & Model  Thefts Most Common Model Year Stolen
1 Chevy Full Size Pick-up  48,206            2004
2 Ford Full Size Pick-up  47,999            2006
3 Honda Civic  31,673            2000
4 Honda Accord  30,274            1997
5 Toyota Camry  17,270            2007
6 GMC Full Size Pick-up  15,599            2005
7 Nissan Altima  14,108            2020
8 Honda CR-V  13,308            2000
9 Jeep Cherokee/Grand Cherokee  13,210            2018
10 Toyota Corolla  12,927            2020

Source: NICB

A Growing Problem: Catalytic Converter Theft

Catalytic converter from a vehicle

In addition to vehicle theft, the NICB says thieves began targeting expensive catalytic converters in the last several years. The theft of these devices has skyrocketed, with a 1,215% increase since 2019.

A catalytic converter is a device about the size of a loaf of bread (bigger on vehicles equipped with larger engines) in your car’s exhaust system. Located ahead of the muffler, it’s often easily accessible underneath the vehicle’s center.

The catalytic converter helps filter harmful pollutants out of your car’s exhaust. It sends hot exhaust gasses through a honeycomb of rare metals, like rhodium and palladium, that act as sponges, absorbing harmful chemicals.

Those rare metals created a catalytic converter crime wave. Their prices have spiked recently, making a relatively new converter worth thousands of dollars.

Thieves can remove catalytic converters in minutes by sliding underneath the car and sawing them out of the exhaust system with a reciprocating power saw.

Tips to Keep Your Car Safe

Keeping your car relatively safe from thieves isn’t complicated or expensive.

Thieves target the cars that leave them least at risk. So, a few common-sense steps can make them likely to bypass your vehicle and look for an easier mark.

PRO TIP 1: Avoid “puffing” or keeping your vehicle switched on while you run an errand. Warming and leaving a car unattended in some states and municipalities is illegal. Many owners also leave the key fobs inside, making the vehicles an easy target for thieves. See more protection tips below. Read on to see what NICB suggests as layers of protection.

RELATED: Cars That Use Digital Keys

Four Layers of Protection  

  • Common Sense. Lock your doors, close your windows, don’t leave the keys in the car, and park in well-lit areas. Memphis, Tennessee, police recently warned residents that thieves could use smartphone cameras to see what’s inside tinted windows. Leaving valuables in plain sight in your vehicle is an invitation to theft.
  • Warning Device. Use an audible alarm to scare away thieves and visible theft deterrents, like a steering wheel lock.
  • Immobilizing Device. Use a smart key or another wireless ignition authenticator “which prevents thieves from bypassing your ignition and hot-wiring the vehicle.”
  • Tracking Device. Invest in a telematics service or other tracking device so that, if thieves steal your car, police can quickly locate the vehicle.

Tips to Prevent Catalytic Converter Theft  

Protecting your catalytic converter involves the same steps as protecting your car.

  1. Park in a locked garage. Garage parking is the best defense if you’re worried about thieves stealing your car’s catalytic converter.
  2. Install security cameras. When a locked garage isn’t an option, park in a well-lit area and consider installing a security camera and motion detection lights.
  3. Purchase a guard. You could also install a guard on your catalytic converter. Several companies make guards designed to make removing the converter difficult and not worth a thief’s time. But we’ve seen no studies that examine whether the guards deter thieves.
  4. Get etched. Some police departments and dealerships will etch your VIN or license plate number on the catalytic converter to help prevent theft.