Confessions of a Car Thief


Part 3

What Happens to Your Stolen Car?

How do you, the Edmunds reader, avoid becoming a victim of a car thief? We examined statistics and tips from the pros.

First, the good news: Theft in 2008 was down 12.7 percent from the prior year and is at its lowest point since 1978.

Now, the bad news: Thieves still stole almost one million vehicles in 2008, costing consumers $6.4 billion. What's worse, thieves who discover personal information left in the car are now using it for identity theft, a skyrocketing crime with potentially devastating consequences. For that reason, Edmunds recommends never leaving mail or personal information, such as your date of birth, driver's license number or social security number, in the car.

But according to former car thief Gary Sousa, reporting your car stolen to the local police department doesn't help much.

"The cops will call out a report on the dispatch radio in the area, and the local cops will drive down the street and act like they're looking for your car. But if the thief has driven the car out of that area, which is what usually happens, there's no chance of them finding it," he said. "Cops outside the area can see the license plates of stolen cars on the computers in their cars, but your car's license plate usually doesn't actually get into that system for hours. By the time your report actually comes up on their computers, it'll be long gone."

The reasons people steal cars vary, including joyriding, use in committing another crime, or even basic transportation (since even thieves need wheels). But the majority of vehicles are stolen for profit, with organized crime as a major beneficiary. Parts stripped from stolen cars are often resold for more than the value of the vehicle, frequently to unsuspecting customers. "Beaters" — vehicles in very poor condition — are often driven south and sold in Central or South America. Luxury or status makes are sometimes shipped and sold in Europe. And vehicles stolen as part of an insurance fraud scheme or used in a crime are often buried, burned or driven into a lake, never to be found again.

Frank Scafidi, spokesman for the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), an industry-sponsored organization combating insurance fraud and vehicle theft, has a sense of humor when it comes to auto thieves. "Not every crook is a Rhodes scholar," he mused. "If a car is stolen and recovered five hours later and there's nothing missing in it, that's a crook who couldn't figure out a bus schedule, so he stole a car instead. But if there's stuff missing from the car, it's because he needed fast cash, and a lot of that is drug related."

Improved technology gets much of the credit for the drop in auto theft. More police forces are using "bait cars" to trap thieves — they do work on some thieves — and license plate readers, which quickly scan cars on the road to see if any are in their database. Consumers, too, are buying more theft-deterrence and recovery systems. "We have technology in effect in more places than ever before," Scafidi said, "but eventually the word about how to defeat them will reach even the 'Darwin type' auto thieves, and at that point we'll have to come up with something else."

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