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Evaluating Stolen Vehicle Recovery Systems

"It was parked right here."

After questioning yourself ("Could I be wrong?"), perhaps while wandering around the parking lot, that feeling of dread slowly begins to take hold. Your car's been stolen. What now?

The police have little to go on except a description of your car and its license plate number. If you really want your car back, it should contain a stolen vehicle recovery system before it joins the ranks of the 1.2 million vehicles stolen in the U.S. each year.

Vehicle recovery systems — a.k.a. vehicle tracking systems — are telematics systems that allow their owners to get their stolen vehicles back — often sooner than had they relied solely on the police, and with less damage. Because of this, insurance companies offer owners a discount on the comprehensive portion of their policies — often 10 percent or more.

Technology buyer John Haynes, who chooses vehicle recovery products for California's largest mobile electronics specialist, Al and Ed's Autosound, says that most of these systems are being marketed not just for recovering vehicles, but for the other features that will get more use, such as remote start, lock and unlock as well as GPS vehicle tracking. Another big draw? Tracking your teen driver.

"When my daughter was 18 years old and going to a concert with her friends in Anaheim, it was nice to get an e-mail on my phone that said, 'Ally arrived.' If I woke up at 2 in the morning and my son wasn't home yet, I could go to the computer and see where he was; I didn't have to call all over and wake people up," Haynes said.

How They Work

Most vehicle recovery systems combine a GPS transmitter in the car (for vehicle tracking) and cellular technology (to transmit the information to and from a monitoring center). There are technical limitations, though: GPS requires a clear line of sight to three satellites in order to locate the car's position, so it won't work if your car has been hidden in a concrete parking structure or anywhere that blocks the sight lines. Also, there are sometimes "dead spots" where cell phone service does not work.

LoJack is an exception, because it uses FM radio frequency technology and works with specially equipped police cars to zone in on your stolen vehicle. It has a 90 percent recovery rate, so although it doesn't do anything besides vehicle recovery, police strongly prefer it.

Ted Sarah, a senior law-enforcement liaison for LoJack in Southern California, spent 30 years as a vehicle theft detective in Pasadena, California. He says LoJack has been responsible for nabbing many criminals who are responsible for more serious crimes.

"It could lead to a kidnapping, robbery or chop shops," he said. "And every month, we get one to three 'good' ones, where you've got 8-12 cars [recovered at once].

No matter the make or model of your car, there are options to choose from. We've categorized the vehicle recovery systems as either factory-based systems (such as GM OnStar) or aftermarket systems, which includes Mobile IQ, Zoombak and LoJack. Here's the breakdown.

Factory-Installed (Automaker) Systems

GM's OnStar
Stolen vehicle recovery is one of many features of GM's OnStar service, which is better known for its crash notification feature. If your car is stolen, you first file a report with the police, then contact OnStar immediately. If all goes well, the police and OnStar will work together to recover your vehicle. If the thief leads the police on a chase, OnStar can use a unique new feature, Stolen Vehicle Slowdown, to assist police in their capture and to prevent accidents.

Price: Free for the first year. Afterward, $18.95/month or $199/year
How to get it: Factory-installed on GM vehicles
Technology: GPS and cellular
Pros: Part of much larger suite of helpful services; available across the U.S.; free for first year.
Cons: Although cars stolen by "opportunistic" thieves, such as joyriders, are often recovered using OnStar, professional thieves know how to defeat the system. LAPD Detective Lou Koven, who specializes in auto theft, likes OnStar for other, user-friendly services, but feels that the service isn't sufficiently "law-enforcement friendly," making the police "jump through a lot of hoops" in order to close in successfully on a stolen vehicle.
Best for: Any GM buyer. Also for those on the fence about a GM/non-GM purchase but want OnStar's other features, such as crash notification, automatic door unlock, point of interest locations and the like.

Other stolen vehicle tracking systems offered directly by automakers as part of their telematics system include:

BMW Assist — Four years free (model-year 2007 and newer); after four years or for model-year 2004-'06, $199/year.

Toyota Safety Connect — A one-year, free trial of Safety Connect is included on select 2010 Toyota and Lexus models. The renewal fee is $139.95.

Lexus Enform — In addition to the Toyota Safety Connect, a one-year, free trial of Lexus Enform is offered on select 2010 models with navigation, except the SC. Enform has additional features such as push-button live operator assistance, and will cost $264.90 to renew.

Mercedes-Benz TeleAid — One year free trial, then $240/year to renew. Mercedes-Benz uses a subscription-based service developed by Hughes Telematics.

Starting with the 2010 model year, certain Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge vehicles will offer stolen vehicle tracking for the first time as part of a subscription-based service developed by Hughes Telematics.

Aftermarket/Stand-Alone Systems

Mobile IQ (by AirIQ)
Developed by AirIQ, Mobile IQ is a stand-alone vehicle recovery system that can be installed alongside either factory or aftermarket alarm systems. If your car is stolen, its alarm triggers the Mobile IQ transceiver unit inside the car, which notifies a monitoring center that your car has been moved. The monitoring center then contacts you via e-mail, text message, pager or phone (your choice). If you believe the use of your car is unauthorized, you must then contact the police with the car's location. You can track your vehicle on the Web, or the police can do so if you give them your login information.

Price: $499.99 for the product, plus $100 for installation (typically); more if you want additional features, such as remote start or remote lock/unlock (by phone or computer). First year subscription for vehicle recovery is free; after that, it's $100/year. According to Al and Ed's, if you want more features, both installation and subscription will cost more, but not the product itself.
How to get it: Mobile electronics specialists
Technology: GPS and cellular
Pros: Can be transferred to another vehicle (for a fee). Opens the door to myriad other customizable features.
Con: Cost.
Best for: Non-GM vehicle owners outside the LoJack area or those who want access to whiz-bang features.

Other brands of stand-alone vehicle tracking and recovery systems exist, of course, although several of them also use AirIQ technology and market it under a different name.

Mobile electronics specialist Haynes is bullish on Zoombak, a relative newcomer that doesn't offer fancy features but is uniquely portable. Let's say you go hiking or boating: You can remove the Zoombak from the car (only you know where it's hidden) and take it with you. If you get lost or need rescue, you can notify authorities — thus providing a measure of personal as well as automotive security. You can also use Zoombak to track your vehicle via Web or mobile phone if someone else is driving it. A plus: It can be charged from a cigarette lighter or a home charger.

Zoombak is on the low end of the price spectrum, but its Achilles' heel is that it will not notify you if your car is stolen — potentially losing several critical hours or days before you report it stolen to the police. Once you do learn your car has been stolen, notify police and track your car from the Web, similar to Mobile IQ.

Price: $199 for the unit, $15/month unlimited use; installation recommended but not required.
How to get it: Electronics stores, automotive stores, online
Technology: GPS and cellular
Pros: Cost; portability, professional installation not required (though recommended); can be charged through cigarette lighter or at home; unlimited use plan, up to five days on one charge (according to manufacturer).
Con: No early warning system if your car is stolen.
Best for: People who want a unit that can travel with them; nervous parents; budget-conscious non-GM vehicle owners or those outside the LoJack area.

LoJack is unique in the vehicle recovery business. An installer at the dealership hides a small radio transponder in one of 20 different places, making it difficult for thieves to detect or remove quickly. Once you report your car's vehicle identification number (VIN) to the police, the information is quickly sent to the FBI's National Crime Information Center (NCIC). That database is cross-checked against LoJack's; if a match is found, a signal is sent to turn on the LoJack transponder. It then sends out a silent signal to local police vehicles and/or helicopters equipped with LoJack vehicle tracking units, which can hone in on it. Sometimes, the thieves are still near the vehicle and can be apprehended.

Price: One-time fee: $695 MSRP; $995 with an early warning feature. Like other dealer options, prices are negotiable.
How to get it: Sold as a stand-alone, dealer-installed option, usually at time of vehicle sale; LoJack trains dealer service technicians how to install it.
Technology: Radio frequency
Pros: Tied directly into NCIC crime computer and local police departments; 90 percent recovery rate; money-back guarantee if car isn't recovered within 24 hours.
Cons: Cost. Only available in 26 states and Washington, D.C. (those with the highest auto theft rates); subscription won't transfer if you buy or sell a car with LoJack already installed, nor can you remove it from a leased vehicle.
Best for: People who live within a LoJack service area who have expensive vehicles or collector cars to protect.

Is One System Best?

While the different companies have legitimate arguments over whether GPS or radio frequency is the "better" vehicle recovery technology, the truth is that there are pluses and minuses to both sides. It's more important to consider what combination of technology, features and cost are right for you.

LoJack has the significant advantage of being the only stolen vehicle recovery system operated by the police, but it's a one-trick pony; someone shelling out $695-$995 may want more than simply vehicle recovery. If so, they can go with OnStar (as long as they want to own a GM vehicle), which includes a wide range of services that can include driving directions, all sorts of help in an emergency, and a real person to talk to. Or they can go the AirIQ route, which opens the door to increased customization. Finally, the Zoombak is a good choice if you want to use a recovery system for more than just one car.

GM OnStar and BMW Assist are the only vehicle recovery services we're aware of that let you try the system before you buy it, though you'd have to purchase a car from those manufacturers to have that option. So whichever systems you're considering, ask plenty of questions about how each one works before you commit, including how often the system's battery backup should be checked and exactly what the procedure is in the event your car is actually stolen. And don't forget to lock your car doors.