Good News on Auto Theft

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A stolen vehicle can be a major headache for any small business. A theft necessitates the time-consuming tasks of filing a police report and submitting a claim to your insurer. You may also need to obtain a rental vehicle to use while you wait for your vehicle to be located. Only about half of the vehicles stolen each year are recovered. If yours cannot be found your insurer will likely declare it a total loss.

If the vehicle is insured for comprehensive coverage under a commercial auto policy, your insurer may replace it or (more likely) pay you its actual cash value.

Fortunately, auto theft is on the decline. A report issued by the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) shows that auto thefts declined by 58% between 2013 and 1991 (when thefts peaked).

The NICB report is based on data provided by the FBI for the period 1960 to 2013. It lists (for each year) the number of vehicles stolen, the number of vehicle registrations, and the theft rate per 100,000 registrations. The statistics show that Americans became increasingly dependent on vehicles between 1960 and 1991. During that time the U.S. population grew by about 40%. However, the number of registered vehicles increased by over 250% (from 74 million in 1960 to over 192 million in 1991).

As the number of vehicles on the road increased, auto thefts rose as well.

Between 1960 and 1991 thefts increased from 328,200 to 1,661,738. During that time the annual theft rate (total thefts per 100,000 registrations) almost doubled. Auto thefts finally began to fall in 1992. By 2000 auto thefts had declined by about 31%. Thefts continued to go down over the next decade.

In 2010 auto thefts were 36% lower than they had been in 2000.

What has caused the precipitous drop in auto thefts?

Law Enforcement

One important factor is law enforcement. Police have developed new techniques to respond to changes that have occurred in the criminal landscape. Auto theft has changed dramatically since the 1960s. Back then auto thieves were largely teenagers looking for a joy ride. Nowadays, most thieves are adults. Many are part of organized rings that target specific types of vehicles. Some thieves strip vehicles and sell the parts. Others ship stolen autos out of the country so they can be sold on the black market.

Law enforcement has responded to these changes in a variety of ways. Some police departments have created special units that deal with auto theft only. Others have teamed up with insurance organizations (such as the NICB) or other law enforcement agencies (like the FBI) to apprehend auto thieves.

Some police departments have had success with anti-theft programs based on the use of "bait cars".  To lure thieves, police "bait" vehicles with cell phones, laptops, tools and other items. Officers then place the vehicles in high-theft areas. The autos are equipped with electronic devices such as video cameras, GPS tracking mechanisms, remote locking devices (to prevent thieves from escaping) and "kill switches" (to enable police to disable vehicles remotely).

Bait vehicles have been effective for both catching thieves and deterring would-be criminals.


Over the last few decades, the federal government has enacted laws intended to reduce auto theft. An example is the Motor Vehicle Theft Law Enforcement Act, which Congress passed in 1984. This law is designed to reduce interstate trafficking of stolen vehicles and parts. Another law passed by Congress is the Anti-Car Theft Act. This law, which was enacted in 1992, makes carjacking a federal crime.

States have also enacted laws designed to reduce auto theft. For instance, a number of states have passed laws to fund special commissions that focus on auto theft. Other states have passed laws that crack down on crooked auto parts dealers or corrupt auto dismantlers.


A major factor in the reduction of auto theft is technology.

Many of the new anti-theft techniques developed by law enforcement depend on technology. An example is the "bait car" programs described above. These programs have been successful because they incorporate the use of electronic devices like cameras and GPS tracking systems. Police also use technological tools to locate and track stolen vehicles. Examples are license plate readers, surveillance cameras and telematics systems.  

Technology has made modern vehicles much more difficult to steal than their older counterparts. Nowadays, many cars come with an electronic (smart) key. Unless a thief has possession of the key, he or she is unable to open the doors or start the engine. If a thief attempts to enter the vehicle without the key, an alarm will be triggered and the vehicle will be immobilized.