Learning How a Car Is Stolen

Knowing the methods that thieves use to steal cars can help you protect your car from theft. Here's how cars are often stolen and what you can do to stop it.

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A former insurance producer, Laura understands that education is key when it comes to buying insurance. She has happily dedicated many hours to helping her clients understand how the insurance marketplace works so they can find the best car, home, and life insurance products for their needs.

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Written by Laura Berry
Former Insurance Agent Laura Berry

Joel Ohman is the CEO of a private equity backed digital media company. He is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™, author, angel investor, and serial entrepreneur who loves creating new things, whether books or businesses. He has also previously served as the founder and resident CFP® of a national insurance agency, Real Time Health Quotes. He has an MBA from the University of South Florida. Jo...

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Reviewed by Joel Ohman
Founder & CFP® Joel Ohman

UPDATED: Jun 10, 2022

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Here's what you need to know

  • Car thieves use different methods and tools to steal cars so they can sell the parts or sell the vehicles overseas
  • Practicing certain measures can help prevent the theft of your car
  • Comprehensive car insurance includes coverage for if your car gets stolen or vandalized during the theft process

Property theft and overall crime are on the rise in the U.S., and vehicle theft is no exception, experiencing significant spikes due to the increasing demand for cars and car parts. As you worry about the safety of your car, you may wonder exactly how thieves execute their thefts and how you can protect your vehicle. The more steps you take to protect your car, the less likely it is to be stolen. You can even receive an anti-theft discount on your car insurance if you have certain devices.

How Cars are Stolen

Car thieves generally don’t attend “how to steal cars” classes. However, they do tend to use similar methods. These are dependent on their motivation for the theft and the car model.

Why do thieves steal cars?

The obvious answer to this question is to make money. However, that’s not always the reason, and car thieves fall into different categories based on their motives and approaches:

  • The professional- This is the thief who plans out every heist. Instead of doing the dismantling themselves, they send stolen vehicles to chop shops specializing in stripping cars down for parts or sending them overseas to fill orders for luxury vehicles.
  • The opportunist- This is the thief who simply takes any chance presented while going about their normal business. They see an unoccupied vehicle and use the opportunity to steal it. They generally dismantle vehicles themselves.
  • The joyrider- This is the thief (sometimes under the influence of alcohol or drugs) who decides to take a ride in someone else’s vehicle, usually a luxury one, without permission. The goal is the experience rather than making money.
  • The carjacker- This is the thief who steals the vehicle while the owner is present. They may purposefully bump your car and steal it when you get out to look or yank your door open at a traffic light and force you out. They may use violence.   

Most car thieves are either professionals or opportunists who want to strip the car and break it apart for parts. Generally, car thieves specifically target popular vehicles that don’t stand out because they want to avoid the extra work needed to sell parts bearing less common logos. They may search out higher-performance luxury cars if they want to ship them overseas for sale, but this happens less often.

Note that carjackers may steal your car for the same purposes, but they also may simply need a vehicle to escape in.

What methods do car thieves use to steal cars?

Carjackers usually use intimidation or trickery. Joyriders often go for the easiest option, meaning they take vehicles with an open window or unlocked door. The key may be easily accessible (in the ignition, on a coffee table at a party, etc.).

Professionals and opportunists may also go for easy entry or commit burglary to retrieve keys. However, they also employ techniques to get into cars that aren’t so obviously easy to break into.

Most thieves first scout out the alarm system. They may purposefully try to set it off by tapping or bumping the vehicle to see if one is present. If there is an alarm, they may search for stickers with instructions on disabling or getting past the alarm. Some may not fear noise alarms because many individuals ignore them, since it is common for legal owners to set them off by accident or to find their vehicles.

How do thieves break into older cars? 

Older model cars lack the technological innovations newer models have, so they are easier to break into even when they have alarms. Thieves often use a slim jim, a hook and wire tool also employed by the police and locksmiths, to reach through the window seal and unlock the door. Depending on whether they care about the glass, they may also simply break the window.

Another method they may use is shaving a key down to a configuration matching the lock. Once in the vehicle, they can disable the alarm by ripping out the wires. To start the car, they can then hotwire the engine using the power and starter wires.

How do thieves use technology to steal newer cars?

Newer model vehicles pose more challenges to thieves since they have more complicated safety features, such as electronic codes on the keys. Without these codes, shaved and cloned keys won’t work. There are also passive alarms that activate when someone removes the key from the ignition, ignition cut-off systems, and systems that automatically alert the police.

However, professional thieves have advanced their skills and equipment along with car protection technology, developing new ways to bypass such systems. These include:

  • Relay theft- Uses two devices, a relay, and an amplifier, that trick car systems into thinking keys are close, allowing thieves to unlock the vehicle and drive it
  • Code breaking- Cracks the code on keys and uses a transmitter to open the car and start it
  • Code cloning- Copies the key codes onto a cloned key
  • On-board diagnostics system breach- Uses a special device to steal information from the OBD, allowing thieves to create replicate keys
  • GPS jamming- Jams the GPS and other tracking features to prevent the owners or authorities from locating the stolen car

Professionals with the right connections may skip all of these steps, opting for simply having the vehicles towed away instead.

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How can you protect your car from theft?

The FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program found that there were approximately 721,885 vehicle thefts in the U.S. just in 2019, a number that has only grown since then. By taking certain steps, you can reduce the chance of your joining the ranks of car theft victims:

  • Don’t- Don’t leave your keys in your car. Don’t leave your car running while you’re gone. Don’t leave your doors unlocked or your windows open. Don’t leave desirable items visible in your car. Don’t leave your vehicle title in the car.
  • Do- Do be aware of your surroundings. Do avoid driving through sketchier neighborhoods if possible. Do park your car in areas that are well-lit (car thieves prefer the dark) or close to a storefront, or have many passersby that can act as witnesses.
  • Invest- Invest in extra security measures, such as tracking systems and anti-theft systems. Invest in an installation by a reviewed professional. Invest in having the VIN numbers etched in the windows to make it harder for thieves to sell car parts. 

While these are not absolute guarantees of prevention, they do help minimize the chance of theft by making stealing your car hard enough that it is not worth the effort for some thieves.

What kind of car insurance covers theft?

If you want to be ready for the event that a thief steals your car in spite of all preventative measures, you can upgrade your auto insurance by adding comprehensive coverage to your policy.

Basic insurance policies usually only include liability auto insurance coverage to cover the other party if you have a wreck involving another driver. Comprehensive coverage will cover theft of your car or components of it. It will also cover any damage done if you recover your car. Carjackers and joyriders may abandon your vehicle after they’re through, but often not until they’ve done significant harm. Comprehensive coverage will pay for the repairs in such a case.

How Cars are Stolen: Closing Thoughts

Car thieves may use many methods to steal your car, most commonly with the goal of selling off various parts. Popular, affordable models are more attractive to thieves. Certain actions can help ward off car theft. If you want your insurance to cover the theft or any vandalism during the theft of your vehicle, you need comprehensive coverage.

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