How to thwart a car thief

By: The Staff,

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Thieves targeted Charlotte and Stevan Arbona's car three times.

Twice, their Honda Accord had the air bags stolen out of it right in front of their Brooklyn home. The thieves broke a back window to get access each time. "As soon as we got the air bags replaced, they came back," Charlotte Arbona said.

The third time, the whole car was stolen, only to be recovered a few blocks away sans air bags and with some other minor damage. The Arbonas invested in a parking garage after that.

A car is stolen every 26 seconds in the United States, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which works with insurance companies to prevent auto theft and insurance fraud.

And it's often the most basic things drivers do - or don't do - that entice car theives.

For instance, leaving a window cracked open - even the tiniest bit - on a parked car is like a flashing neon sign that says "steal this car," according to Michigan's Help Eliminate Auto Theft program, or HEAT.

Leaving an unoccupied car running at a convenience store, gas station, or automated teller machine is another bad idea. Thieves stake out these locations, waiting for such opportunities, according to the Texas Department of Transportation's Automobile Burglary and Theft Prevention Authority. (To see our complete list of tips on preventing car theft, go to the accompanying slideshow.)

One Million Stolen

There were 1,095,769 motor vehicle thefts nationwide last year - 97,040 less than in 2006, NICB data indicates.

This 8 percent decline in the number of thefts continues a downward trend that has been going on for more than a decade.

"It began to drop in 1996 when we started using computer engineered controls," says Robert Sinclair, a spokesperson for AAA New York. "It wasn't as easy to hotwire a car."

But even as vehicles get more difficult to steal because of advances in technology, the advice that experts give for steering clear of thieves remains simple.

Always lock your car and take your keys, said Debbie Gawlik, a spokesperson for the crime prevention unit of the Victoria (Texas) Police Department. "A lot of people don't do that," Gawlik says, with a laugh.

Government anti-theft programs such as Watch Your Car also offer decals that can be helpful in deterring, or apprehending, thieves. One decal indicates that a car is not normally driven between the hours of 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. When police see a car with one of the decals on the road during those hours, they pull it over and ascertain whether the driver is authorized to use it.

Another decal alerts law enforcement that a vehicle is not normally driven near international land borders or shipping ports.

Only 58 percent of vehicles stolen last year were recovered, according to the NICB. That is the lowest recovery rate in more than a decade.

The reason so many are never found is that they are often exported or broken down in chop shops for their parts, the NICB says.

New Feature from OnStar

Programs offered by car manufacturers - including General Motor's OnStar and BMW Assist - can improve the chances of recovery. These programs connect drivers by satellite to an operations center that can help with everything from remotely unlocking car doors to calling emergency assistance to the scene of an accident.

In OnStar's case, after filing a police report for a stolen vehicle, drivers can dial a toll-free number to ask for tracking to be used, says Brad Williams, a manager for OnStar's security services. OnStar then works to locate the vehicle via satellite to help law enforcement recover it.

The company does not disclose its success rate, saying that it is not always notified when a vehicle is found. But OnStar gets more than 700 requests a month to assist with locating a stolen vehicle, Williams says.

And now OnStar is offering a new feature that can stop a thief in his tracks - literally.

GM announced this month that "stolen vehicle slowdown" is now standard on all 2009 models that are equipped with OnStar.

So once police spot a stolen vehicle, OnStar can send a signal to its engine to gradually reduce the power, eliminating any chance of a dangerous high-speed chase. (As a safety measure, braking and steering continue to work as the vehicle is being slowed down.)

Drivers who prefer to opt out of this new feature can do so, but they do not have to pay extra to have it. All of the OnStar services are free in the first year and cost $199 annually after that.

On Etching

VIN etching - which is offered free by HEAT programs around the country - is another way to protect against theft. Some insurance companies even offer discounted rates for having the vehicle identification number acid-etched on the windows.

Experts say this makes it more difficult for thieves to resell the vehicle or use it for parts. The thinking is that the thief would see the VIN etching and move on to an easier target. "They don't want to go to the expense and trouble of trying to get rid of 100 pounds of glass," Gawlick says.

Victoria's police department offers free VIN-etching continuously, with 20 to 30 vehicles coming in every month.

Gawlick says some dealerships also offer the service, but charge several hundred dollars for it.

Do-it-yourself VIN-etching kits available online range from around $15 to $30.

Frank Scafidi, director public affairs at the NICB, says VIN-etching alone might not prevent a determined thief from taking a car. But it can be particularly effective when used along with other deterrents, he says.

When the NICB participates in free VIN-etching events nationwide, it even puts the VIN number on the catalytic converter. "Those things are getting ripped off like crazy now," Scafidi says. "So we actually will crawl under there and etch a number on the catalytic converter along with the window etching."

Model Behavior?

It's been about a decade since the Arbonas had trouble with car thieves. They think switching to a different car brand helped, and they might be right. Hondas have ranked among the most-stolen vehicles in the country for years.

"We decided not to get another Honda," Charlotte Arbona says. "We now have a Volvo V70 that we park on the street, and it's been fine. We haven't had any problems. We figured no one would steal a Volvo station wagon for a joyride."

Our list of tips to help prevent auto theft was compiled from multiple sources, including the NICB. Go to the accompanying slideshow to see the full list.