Auto Theft is Big Business

Car theft costs everyone and the problem is getting worse

Classic Oldsmobile
Classic Oldsmobile

Here today. Gone today. To a car thief, time is money, and we mean big money. The old saying is that crime doesn’t pay, but that doesn’t seem the case when it comes to car theft. It’s a big business. So big, in fact, that if it were legalized and incorporated, it would rank 56th among Fortune 500 companies.

Another common motivation to steal a car is simply to sell it again, in the same way that any stolen property is “fenced” illegally. Often thieves will hustle the vehicle across state lines where its identification numbers are altered to match forged or fraudulently obtained titles and registration papers. Another common ploy is to ship the stolen vehicles overseas. Often a vehicle stolen in a port city will be in a shipping container ready to be sent overseas within hours of its theft.

‘Cars for crack’ is a scary new trend

A frightening new trend in car theft is often referred to as “cars for crack.” The typical scenario goes like this: a drug buyer will lend his vehicle to a crack dealer in exchange for drugs. The drug dealer, in turn, uses the vehicle to transport drugs or commit other crimes with no threat of having to forfeit his own car if he’s caught. If the drug dealer does not return the car or the car is seized by law enforcement, the drug buyer who lent the car reports the car as stolen to his insurance company. The insurance company then settles the claim, putting more potential drug money in the hands of the buyer. If the car is returned, the process simply repeats itself.

Another type of car theft was spawned by the increasing prevalence of automobile leasing. In this scenario, usually referred to as a “give up,” the owner or lessee is actually quite willing to have the vehicle stolen. Why? Because it typically involves either leased vehicles with excess mileage whose turn-in costs are high or purchased vehicles whose owners no longer desire to make the monthly payments.

Insurance fraud motivates some theft

In these instances the owner actually arranges to have the vehicle stolen or simply abandons it in a known high-crime area. In some cases, the owner/lessee may simply hide the vehicle and report it stolen to the police and insurance company. Sometimes, to ensure that the car is a write-off, the owner may actually burn the vehicle to make certain it is a total loss. These cases begin as car theft, but also involve another felony — insurance fraud.

Back in the Fifties and Sixties many juveniles would steal cars just to have wheels. These joyriders often abandoned the cars soon after the theft without doing much damage to the vehicle. With the growth of juvenile gangs in many areas in the last couple of decades, joyriding has taken a sinister turn. Today many cars stolen by teens are “fenced” or “chopped” by others associated with the gang. They may also become part of the “cars for crack” scenario or be used in the commission of other crimes.

A final motivation for car theft is truly a product of our Information Age. Your car can be “stolen,” while you continue to drive it. Here’s how it works:

Just like you have an established identity, so does your car. You establish and verify your ID by your Social Security number and your Driver’s License number. A car establishes and verifies its ID by its unique Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). If a thief gets hold of your vehicle registration and insurance card, items typically stowed in the glove compartment, a criminal can use that information to obtain a license plate. The thief can then steal a similar vehicle, alter its VIN to match your vehicle’s VIN, and feel confident in his ability to sell the vehicle without detection. The result is a big payday for the criminal and a huge headache for you, especially if the cloned vehicle is used in a crime or involved in an accident.

No vehicle is completely theft-proof

Despite the installation of alarm, theft-prevention and theft-recovery systems, no vehicle is immune to theft. But there are many steps you can take to encourage a thief to “steal elsewhere” rather than trying to pinpoint your car. In the next installment of this multi-part feature, we’ll tell you what vehicles are most likely to be stolen, and we’ll give you several time-proven tips to help you avoid the personal and financial trauma of car theft.

That statistic, though staggering, just takes into account the direct value of the vehicles stolen. Actually, car theft costs us as a society much more. Consider all the indirect costs associated with this crime epidemic.

Because car theft is so prevalent it increases the cost of law enforcement. The price of tracking down, prosecuting and jailing auto thieves takes a sizable bite out of local and state government budgets each year. Auto thefts also are a key factor in bumping up insurance premiums, and the cost is compounded when theft is accompanied by insurance fraud, as it very often is these days. If we could eliminate or severely curtail these two crimes, it would go a long way toward keeping everybody’s car insurance costs down.

Of course, there are the costs of other, related crimes. Car thefts almost always result in the theft of personal property left in the vehicles. Not only does this engender a cost in and of itself, it also creates opportunities for other crimes. Many auto thieves emerge with items like checkbooks, bank deposit slips, credit cards and credit card receipts that can enable criminals to commit credit card and bank fraud.

The human price paid to car thieves is also large. Each year scores of car thefts result in murder and kidnapping. The evening news is filled with tales of car thieves driving off with their victims’ small children still strapped into baby seats.

Recent efforts of law enforcement working in tandem with insurance companies in states like Pennsylvania, which created a governmental authority to deal with the problem, has put a dent in car theft, but the problem is still a gigantic one that has the potential to strike anyone of us who drives at any moment.

Car thieves have a variety of motivations. The most common ploy of the professional criminal is to steal vehicles in order to obtain the parts. Selling the parts of a car individually may bring a criminal two or three times what he could get selling the vehicle intact. Most often thieves collude with other criminals to set up “chop shops” that can strip a car down to its component parts in a matter of minutes. These parts go into the legendary, clandestine “Midnight Auto Parts” network that services shady repair shops and individual mechanics who are eager to purchase the stolen parts at a discount.

About Tom Ripley 52 Articles
Born in Boston, Tom Ripley has been writing about the automotive industry and the human condition for more than a decade. He's a frequent traveller but nominally resides in Villeperce, France.