Car Thefts on the Rise

From 1991 to 2019, motor vehicle thefts generally trended downward, falling 56% due to improved anti-theft technology and stronger, more focused efforts by law enforcement and the insurance industry.1 Unfortunately, the trend has turned upward over the last two years. Industry analysts suggest this may be due in part to effects of the pandemic: economic hardship, realignment of law-enforcement programs, and loss of social and school programs.2

According to preliminary data from the National Insurance Crime Bureau, vehicle thefts increased 16.5% in 2021 over 2019, which tallies to about 925,000 stolen vehicles — one every 34 seconds.3 Older models are statistically more likely to be stolen, because they generally have less sophisticated anti-theft protection, but thieves steal new cars, too. The average loss per theft in 2020 was $9,166.4

Auto theft is covered under the comprehensive coverage of your auto insurance policy. This covers theft of the vehicle or its parts, as well as damage to your vehicle resulting from vandalism, falling or flying objects, animal collisions, fire, explosions, earthquakes, and weather-related risks such as wind and flood. All coverage is only up to policy limits.

Poaching Parts

Thieves who can’t drive away the whole car may steal parts that have high street values. Catalytic converters — small, muffler-like devices that help control pollution from auto emissions — have always been a favorite target because they contain precious metals and are easily accessible under the car, between the engine and the muffler. (If your car sounds like a jack hammer, your converter may be gone.)

Over the last two years, the market value of the precious metals used in converters — palladium, rhodium, and platinum — has skyrocketed, making the parts more lucrative for thieves. Catalytic converter thefts rose by 325% in 2020 over 2019, and partial-year data indicates the trend continued upward in 2021.5 While thieves typically sell the part to a junkyard or recycler for $50 to $250, a new converter could cost $1,000 to $3,000.6

Other favorite targets included airbags, car tires, rims, xenon headlights, and global positioning systems (GPS). Keep in mind that comprehensive coverage typically applies only to GPS systems and other components that are permanently attached; unattached units would be considered personal property.

Tempting Targets

While stealing parts typically requires tools and a little planning, opportunistic thieves may just smash a window and grab whatever they find appealing. Valuable items that are frequently stolen from inside vehicles include laptops and tablet computers, cellphones, portable GPS units, purses, wallets, cameras, tools, and sunglasses.

Standard auto insurance policies generally do not cover the theft of personal property from inside your vehicle, but you may be able to purchase limited coverage for an additional fee. Such thefts are typically covered (after paying a deductible) up to policy limits under standard renters or homeowners policies.

Protecting Your Car and Its Contents

Taking the following protective steps on a consistent basis may help reduce your vehicle’s exposure to theft.

  • Park in well-lit areas whenever possible, always lock vehicle doors, and never leave keys in the vehicle. In 2020, almost 100,000 vehicles were stolen with the keys left inside.7
  • Don’t entice thieves by leaving valuables in plain sight, and keep in mind that credit cards or mail (such as bank statements) left behind in a purse, wallet, or storage compartment could compromise your identity and credit history.
  • If you intend to hide valuables in the trunk, transfer items before you enter a crowded parking lot. Criminals may be watching you or your car from the time you pull into the area.
  • Keep in mind that walking away from a car while it is still running, even for a few minutes, can make it an irresistible mark.
  • Utilize your vehicle’s anti-theft features. Along with factory-installed systems, there are a variety of after-market anti-theft devices available, ranging from simple steering wheel locks to more sophisticated immobilizing devices that prevent the vehicle from starting with an improper key. Tracking systems can alert you that the vehicle has been moved and make it easier to recover.

Some car owners have taken additional steps to secure their catalytic converters, such as installing a heavy metal cage around the converter (which can be pricey) or having it etched with the vehicle identification number or license plate number, which some police departments will do for free.

Coverage at a Reasonable Price

In general, comprehensive coverage costs significantly less than liability or collision coverage. Premiums depend on both the current value of the automobile and the level of risk to which it may be exposed, which means you will pay more if you live in an area where claims are prevalent. Insurers will look closely at the perceived level of risk in your specific ZIP code. You can save on premiums by carrying a higher deductible. For example, increasing the deductible from $200 to $500 could reduce the cost of comprehensive and collision coverage by 15% to 30%.8

Comprehensive coverage is optional, but lenders typically require it. Some people who own older vehicles free and clear may sacrifice the extra coverage for the sake of lower insurance costs, but you might find that comprehensive coverage offers a sense of security that may be worth the extra cost.