Car Theft is On the Rise—Here's How to Protect Your Vehicle & Your Investment

·6 min read

Another day, another post in our local Facebook group about a stolen Hyundai. I've been seeing these posts skyrocket over the last two years: It seemed like mostly amateurs—teens, really—have been taking cars for joyrides, dumping them, then boosting the next one. And it's not my imagination: Vehicle thefts were up more than 9% last year, equating to over 74,000 additional stolen vehicles. And these numbers are on an upward trajectory still.

Getting your car stolen isn't just a headache; it's expensive. You may lose a day's pay (or more) and have property from inside the car taken. Your garage may be damaged in the theft and if your vehicle is eventually found, it may be damaged, too, running up a bill that's easily in the thousands.

Rattankun Thongbun/Getty Images

Even if you have comprehensive insurance, which covers vehicle theft and damage done by the thieves, you may have a deductible that you'll have to pay. The worst case scenario? Your car is totaled by the thieves or never recovered.

However, when my small community wanted to start a neighborhood watch, I knew that I had to present real ways to protect our cars, because a neighborhood watch wasn't actually going to fix anything. Neighborhood watch groups are often formed in affluent suburbs and neighborhoods, and while they are intended to "deter crime," they can end up criminalizing the very presence of people of color (especially Black folks).

Simple steps can be taken to prevent vehicle theft from under a homeowner's nose—without a neighborhood watch.

Common sense isn't so common.

You shouldn't leave your car running while unattended. This sounds like common sense, but it turns out that cars left running—and those that are left with the key fob inside the car—provide the leading cause of vehicle thefts. New York City is an excellent example: The New York Times reports that 6,858 cars were stolen last year—and over 50% of them were running! Of course, when your friend or neighbor vents about their stolen vehicle, they likely aren't going to 'fess up about leaving it running. This common-sense solution will significantly decrease your chances of having your car stolen.

Other than the obvious (turn off your car, lock it, and take the keys with you), what can you easily do to avoid theft? Whenever possible, park in well-lit areas, in full view of people. If your driveway or parking slab is pretty dark at night, installation of floodlights may be prudent. Don't forget to roll up your windows, lock your doors, and leave nothing in sight.

Smart keys made stealing cars harder, for a while. But today, sophisticated tools are out there that can be used to read your smart key, and clone the signal. "Somebody could walk by, use this tool to scan the code for the key," says John Bridgwater, master technician and owner of Doral's Auto Repair in California. "Then [they] send the key code out to the car, unlock and drive away with the car as if the key was in the car."

Because of this, Bridgwater recommends that you avoid storing your keys near your front door, or in a kitchen attached to your garage.

Nothing works perfectly, but real deterrents are available.

Despite talking to three industry experts, and with my own extensive automotive expertise, I have not found a single theft prevention device that is foolproof.

"Use common sense, and don't make your car an easy target," says Janet Ruiz, CPCU, AIM, director of strategic communications at the Insurance Information Institute. Ruiz recommends using a layered approach, laid out by the National Insurance Crime Bureau, in which you essentially implement multiple strategies for the best theft prevention.

There are many different types of deterrents available. Essentially, you want to make stealing your car as inconvenient to the thieves as possible. Once they realize it's too much work, they'll move on to the next car.

Some of these deterrent devices include old favorites that have fallen out of fashion, such as wheel clubs—although Bridgwater advises that a pair of bolt cutters to the steering wheel can easily allow for removal of these.

Other methods include kill switches, a complex alarm system, and a wheel immobilizer (which is like a boot that attaches to your wheel to prevent the car from being driven)—and they only get more complex from there. For the average car owner, a boot and/or club would be the simplest way to deter a thief.

Some car owners use interior dash cameras that send video of any movement in the car to the vehicle owner. Although depending on the size of the device, this may actually encourage break-ins, as it might be seen as something of value.

Secure your garage, too.

You know those video doorbells that are so popular today? You can buy a garage door opener with similar functions. "A standard garage door opener just isn't safe anymore," says Austin Fain, CEO of Perfect Steel Solutions, a home improvement company. "Burglars can still pry open the door through excessive force—which is why you should consider investing in a smart garage door opener that notifies you as soon as the garage door opens or closes."

If you install a smart garage door opener, you'd connect it to an app. Not only will it notify you every time your garage door opens; you can also remotely open and close your garage, too. Some smart garage door openers even have video capabilities, allowing you to see what's happening every time your garage door opens. You can even talk to whoever is in the garage, much like with a smart doorbell.

If you have windows in your garage or the garage door, be sure you do not have anything of value left out in plain sight. In fact, Fain also recommends going as far as frosting your windows, because thieves can scope out not just items of value, but the model of your vehicle. While this sounds like an expensive proposition, it's actually a fairly simple DIY task with a low price tag. Fein uses Coavas Privacy Window Film for his clients' homes.

Having a solid, quality lock on your regular door into the garage is also important, especially if you have a detached garage. "Most homeowners buy a lock once and then forget about it, which is a security threat," says Fein. "Locks are prone to rust which makes them weaker over time."

But, if your car gets stolen anyway…

Sometimes, despite your best efforts and deterrents, a determined person will still steal your car. That's when GPS devices made by companies like RecovR could come into handy. Some vehicle manufacturers have an app that allows you to track your car, while other folks may leave a tracker chip somewhere in the vehicle to remotely track. While this doesn't prevent the car from being stolen, hopefully, it will help you get it back faster, preventing significant costs and damage.