Tough times for auto thieves ©  Brand X / SuperStock (Tough times for auto thieves © Brand X / SuperStock)

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Tough times for auto thieves

Car thefts have fallen nearly 20% in 2 years because of new technology, aggressive cops and aging crooks, among other reasons. One result: Cheaper insurance.

By Marilyn Lewis
MSN Money

Question: What do newspaper editors and car thieves have in common?

Answer: dead-end careers.

Car thefts across the U.S. are dropping fast. And not just by a little. Most (83%) of the country's 366 urban areas reported fewer thefts in 2009 than the year before, continuing a trend that began in 1991. By the FBI's preliminary estimate, auto theft reports were down by almost 20% last year from 2008.

How dramatic is this trend? To get an idea, let's take a look at the metro areas on which the "Grand Theft Auto" franchise was modeled. In these places, car thievery was a growth enterprise not long ago. Now it's practically in a recession.

  • Miami: Auto thefts plummeted from 582 per 100,000 people in 2007 to 396 per 100,000 last year, knocking the metro area down from 27th to 42nd place in the national rankings.

  • New York: The theft rate for the Big Apple's metro area (including part of New Jersey) sank from 197 per 100,000 residents in 2007 to 156 per 100,000, ranking it 223rd in the nation.

  • Los Angeles: Auto thefts fell from 582 to 443 per 100,000 residents, but because of nationwide reductions, L.A. fared somewhat worse in the rankings, moving from 28th place in 2007 to 23rd in 2009.

  • San Francisco-Oakland: The Bay Area fell from 833 thefts per 100,000 residents to 611, putting it in seventh place, two notches down from 2007.

  • Las Vegas: Sin City's rate per thousand was sliced nearly in half, from 1,035 per 100,000 residents in 2007 to 563. It now ranks ninth nationally after occupying second place in 2007.

But somebody's got to be No. 1, right? That would be Laredo, Texas, where the auto theft rate was 742 per 100,000 residents last year, down from 829 in 2007.

Presumably, Laredo's location on the Mexico border has everything to do with its ranking. The Wall Street Journal reported last year that "drug cartels are helping make the U.S.-Mexico border region a hot spot for vehicle thieves."

Yet even with help from drug cartels, it takes less to be No. 1 than in 2007, when Modesto, Calif., claimed the spot with 1,058 thefts per 100,000 residents. (Modesto, about 450 miles north of Mexico, fell to second place in 2009, with 727 thefts per 100,000 residents.)

The big question: Why?

No single hero can take credit for the drop in car thefts, says Frank G. Scafidi, a spokesman for the nonprofit National Insurance Crime Bureau. Several factors are hindering thieves, including better anti-theft technology in new cars and aftermarket products, wariness among drivers and focused law-enforcement campaigns.

 
Top 10 auto theft capitals

2009 rank

Metro area

2009

2008

2007

Thefts

Rate*

Thefts

Rate*

Thefts

Rate*

1

Laredo, Texas

1,792

742

1,960

831

1,914

829

2

Modesto, Calif.

3,712

727

4,235

835

5,358

1,058

3

Bakersfield, Calif.

5,530

685

5,918

742

6,013

766

4

Stockton, Calif.

4,479

664

4,963

742

5,649

849

5

Fresno, Calif.

5,875

642

6,533

723

7,207

810

6

Yakima, Wash.

1,525

638

1,828

778

1,898

817

7

San Francisco-Oakland

26,374

611

30,735

721

34,996

833

8

Visalia-Porterville, Calif.

2,440

568

3,017

714

3,312

796

9

Las Vegas-Paradise, Nev.

10,706

563

13,662

727

19,031

1,035

10

Albuquerque, N.M.

4,815

561

6,182

730

6,845

820

*Per 100,000 residents. Source: National Insurance Crime Bureau.

"Bait cars" (watch auto thieves steal one in this charming law-enforcement video) are decoy vehicles rigged with GPS tracking, audio and video surveillance, and remote engine-kill switches. They are proving a powerful deterrent.

Another bit of technology that's cutting into thieves' business is the widespread deployment of license-plate readers. These use optical character recognition scanners to read hundreds of plates an hour and spot stolen cars. Aggressive prosecution and police task forces that target auto theft also are helping to drive down rates, Scafidi says.

Continued: Good news for insurance rates

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