Consumer

A dozen ways to keep your car from being stolen

July 25, 2014 at 3:03 PM ET

It’s summer and your car could be hot, in more ways than one.

Despite a nationwide crackdown, car theft remains a major problem, and according to government statistics, a vehicle is stolen in the U.S. about every 44 seconds. Thefts are the worst in July and August, and as a popular movie title suggested, a thief may need as little as 60 seconds to break in and drive off.

Video: CNBC's Andrea Day has the story on car theft rings targeting high-end brands, which send vehicles to countries in West Africa where demand is high and supply is low.

You don’t have to become an unhappy part of those statistics. Driver error is responsible for as much as 50 percent of vehicle theft, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 

Since it’s National Vehicle Theft Protection Month, here are some common sense steps that can reduce the odds of having your vehicle stolen – and improve the odds of recovering your car, truck or crossover if it is snatched.

The simplest step is to always lock your car – and then take the key. Even with today’s remote keyless entry systems, a surprising number of motorists still don’t bother to close their windows and lock up their vehicle. Many people will even leave their keys in a cupholder or in the ignition. You might as well put a sign on the windshield that says, “Steal Me.”

Don’t leave your car running and walk away to pump gas or pay when you pull into a service station. That’s something carjackers look for.

Don’t leave a hidden spare key on the outside of the vehicle. That’s something thieves have gotten used to looking for, according to a report by website AutoPartsWarehouse.com.

And don’t invite a break-in by leaving valuables, whether a purse, cellphone or laptop computer bag, where a snatch artist can spot them. Break-ins aren’t just a big city problem. The tiny community of Pleasant Ridge, Michigan, saw a surge in snatch-and-grab robberies in recent years, the numbers jumping as the economy went into the tank.

If you’re home, park your car in the garage where it makes things all the more difficult for a thief. If you can’t, park in a well-lit area that is as secure as possible, experts recommend.

And Interpol adds that when you do park, put the nose of your vehicle facing an obstacle, while turning your wheels toward the curb. It makes it more difficult to roll away the vehicle if a thief can’t get the engine started.

If you’re driving a convertible, make sure its top is firmly secured. And even if you’re in a sedan or SUV, make sure windows are closed and locked. And fix any broken windows, stresses AutoPartsWarehouse.

Tacoma Police Officer Matthew Graham monitors an automatic license plate reader as he cruises during a graveyard shift, June 21, 2014.  In this photo the computer's screen shows the car seen at left with the license plate circled in red. The whole screen would have turned red if the license plate matched one from the "hot sheet", indicating a possible stolen car.
Peter Haley / AP
Tacoma Police Officer Matthew Graham monitors an automatic license plate reader as he cruises during a graveyard shift, June 21, 2014. In this photo the computer's screen shows the car seen at left with the license plate circled in red. The whole screen would have turned red if the license plate matched one from the "hot sheet", indicating a possible stolen car.

Experts note that many car thieves are young, often not even of legal driving age, and desperate for cash. These days, there’s a good chance they won’t know how to drive a manual transmission, so cars with clutches are typically less often stolen.

While thieves often try to sell a popular vehicle as-is, they’re often just snatching a car for a “chop-shop” that’s likely to cut it up and sell off the parts and components, whether an airbag module or a fender. You can make your vehicle less attractive to chop shops by having key parts, including fenders and window glass, chemically etched with your vehicle identification number, or VIN, notes Interpol.

You also can leave identification in hidden places. Some experts suggest dropping a business card inside the doors when the windows are open, or sticking a mailing label to the bottom of the seat. But other authorities caution that you might be then inviting a thief to also pay a visit to your home – especially if they’ve snatched your car with the keys inside. If you do leave ID, says Interpol, list your office, not your home, address.

With a rare exception in 2012, when national figures showed a 1.3 percent increase, car theft has been on a decade-long decline. But the numbers are still staggering, and despite your best efforts you may still find your car missing when you finish a long day at work or wake up in the morning. The good news is that there are new technologies that can help stop a thief in his tracks, or at least help locate your vehicle once it’s been snatched.

Many of today’s vehicles offer – and often come standard with – immobilizers that make it impossible to hotwire them, as was common with older models. You also can install an aftermarket immobilizer.

Then there are the Stolen Vehicle Recovery Systems, or SVRS, such as Lojack. These allow police to track and follow a stolen vehicle, and some permit authorities to reduce engine power or even shut off the car. There are a number of these aftermarket systems, while a growing list of manufacturers offer factory-equipped SVRS devices, such as General Motors’ OnStar.

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