Learning How a Car is Stolen

There were 748,841 cars stolen in the US in 2018. Comprehensive car insurance protects you from theft and vandalism. The average rates for comprehensive coverage are $11.57/mo.

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Zaneta Wood, Ed.S. has over 15 years of experience in research and technical writing bringing a keen understanding of data analysis and information synthesis to reach a wide variety of audiences. She studied adult education and instructional technology at Appalachian State University as well as technical and professional communication at East Carolina University. Zaneta has prepared technical p...

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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®

UPDATED: Jan 22, 2021

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Here's what you need to know...

  • Typically, vehicles are stolen to be stripped for parts
  • Older vehicles are pretty simples for thieves to steal
  • Consider an updated alarm system to protect your vehicle


Car theft is at a 40-year low, but it can still happen to you. There are plenty of car thieves out there dedicated and willing to heist your car. So, how do they do it? And, more importantly, how do you stop it?

First, we need to understand what thieves steal, and why. America’s most stolen cars aren’t fancy exotic supercars or expensive luxury vehicles, they’re everyday cars like the Ford Explorer and the Toyota Corolla.

That’s because stealing and selling off a whole car is extremely hard to do. It can be done, often overseas, but it involves stripping all the identifying marks from a vehicle and replacing them. Instead, thieves are more likely to steal a car and strip it for parts to sell.

Make sure your car is covered in any scenario — enter your zip above for a free online car insurance quotes comparison!

Car Theft, Step by Step

There are two kinds of car thefts:

  1. Those of opportunity
  2. Pre-planned heists

The latter are fairly rare and aimed largely at harder-to-get vehicles. Most thefts are ones of opportunity; a thief sees your car, sees nobody around, and decides to go to work.

So, how does the thief do it? The first thing to tackle is the car alarm: the thief will bump the car or tap the glass to see if there is one and if it sets off. They also might inspect the car for stickers identifying the system and telling them how to get around it.

Some believe that people are completely desensitized to car alarms, and the reality is, when one goes off, it’s not like everybody rushes to their windows to check.

Mostly, the thief just wants to know what he has to deal with.

Next, there’s getting in the car. There’s a fairly simple way to do this: break the window with a rock. Remember, they’re stripping the car for parts.

They couldn’t care less about the glass; they’ll just clean away the remaining broken glass and roll down the other window.

Some thieves, especially if it’s cold, will slide a thin piece of metal between the door and the frame and try to work the lock from there. This is a pretty reliable method; even the police and professional repo men use a similar tool to get doors open (the “slim jim”).

That brings them to the next problem: disabling the alarm.

This is just a matter of finding the wiring to the alarm and yanking it out. Remember, they don’t care about having a pristine interior. And now, they’re faced with arguably the most difficult problem of all: actually getting your car started.

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Hotwiring the Car

On older models, it’s fairly simple: you crack the steering column, identify the starter and power wires, connect the starter wires together, and touch the power wires. This starts the car and off the thief goes with your vehicle.

They may also use an old car key cut to a new configuration, called a “shaved key” that, combined with older locks not being replaced, makes it easy to open and start an older car.

With newer cars, of course, it gets a little trickier. For example, Ford uses what it calls a Passive Anti-Theft System. Each key has a specific electronic code, without which, even if you turn the starter, the engine doesn’t trigger.

In theory, it’s possible to crack this system, as David Beckham learned the hard way after he had two BMWs stolen from him within six months.

But it’s also complicated. Thieves have to be able to quickly crack the encryption on the RFID chip and use a transmitter to open and start the vehicle. As a result, you rarely see it used on the street: it’s too complicated and expensive for most thieves.

Or they just cut out the engine entirely. More often than not, thieves these days just decide all of this is a bit too complex, and just tow your car away when you’re in the store.

You can make their job easy for them, and leave your car running while you run a quick errand.

How to Protect Your Car From Thieves

So, how do you stop your car from being stolen? Follow these steps (and believe us … your auto insurance company will thank you for doing so):

  • Deprive a potential thief of information: strip away any stickers identifying any anti-theft systems.
  • Instead of a car alarm that makes a loud noise, have a car alarm that pages or texts you when your car door is opened or the engine turned over.
  • Use a passive tracking system, such as LoJack, which will let police track down your vehicle quickly and easily.
  • Have your alarm and anti-theft systems installed by a professional. No offense to the guy at the mall, but he’s just installing the unit, not thinking about where thieves would look for an alarm, and how to make it hard for them to reach or disable it.
  • Install an engine immobilizer in a place that’s difficult to reach. And yes, even if it comes standard, consider installing a second one.
  • Avoid certain behaviors that make life easier for car thieves. For example, don’t ever keep a second set of keys anywhere in your car. A thief will find them, and then you’ll be out a car. Similarly, don’t just leave your car running unattended, even if it’s in your line of sight.
  • Don’t tempt thieves by leaving valuable items visible inside the car. If you can’t take them with you, at least lock them in the trunk where they won’t be seen.
  • Practice “defensive parking.” Whenever you can, park in a lot with an attendant or a security system such as video cameras. If none is available, park near the entrance of a building, or near other areas that see a lot of foot traffic. That means there are lots of witnesses.

These tips are even more important if you live in one of the 15 states with the highest vehicle theft rates. In these states, there are often hundreds of cars stolen per 100,000 registered vehicles in those states, making your car (and your finances) at risk.

Just in case your car does get stolen, make sure you’ve got the best auto insurance. Use the FREE comparison tool below, and rest assured knowing you’ve got the best behind you.

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