Wednesday, July 23, 2014
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Foil Auto Thieves—or Track the Car



You say you don't worry too much about your car being stolen since it's several years old? Stop and check out a sampling of the most-stolen cars: 1991 Honda Accord, 1989 Toyota Camry, 1997 Ford F-150 pickup. Whether your ride is newer or older than the average nine-plus-year-old vehicle on the road today, you don't want it to join the more than one million cars stolen in the U.S. every year.

You can take simple steps to make your car a less-likely target, and there are some new, not-too-expensive ways to track a stolen vehicle. And your efforts may merit an insurance premium reduction.

With economic troubles keeping many people from buying new cars, demand for cheap replacement parts for older cars stays high. That's plenty of incentive for thieves tied to "chop shops" that cut up cars for their parts. To demonstrate those economics, Frank Scafidi of the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), Des Plaines, Ill., took a look at that 1991 Honda Accord—the No. 2 most stolen on the Bureau's most recent list. The maximum resale value of the car was $3,500, but a list of parts that could be harvested from it was worth $5,000 if bought through a dealership. Check out how much your car is worth at a Web site like Kelley Blue Book, then decide how much it makes sense for you to spend protecting it.

Start with steps that don't cost you anything—obvious but not always observed. Always lock your car and park it in a well-lit place. And, says Scafidi: "Never leave the keys in your car outside the convenience store thinking that you'll only be in there for a minute. That's plenty of time for somebody to jump in and drive it away."

Then, depending on what you decide you can spend, take these steps:

Discourage thieves

More than one million cars are stolen in the U.S. every year.
Many car thieves are looking for the easiest target, so they pass by vehicles that seem to present problems. For about $50 you can buy The Club or other steering wheel lock; they're not foolproof but they add a layer of difficulty. For $60 to $80, you can get a "tire claw" lock that will keep one wheel from turning. If your car didn't come with a built-in alarm that goes off when the door is opened without the key, consider having one installed for $200 to $300 by an auto electronics specialist. And get a decal announcing the alarm's presence.

Keep the car from moving

If an alarm doesn't stop a thief from breaking in to your car, make sure it won't start. For $150 or less, you can get professional installation of a so-called kill switch. This disrupts the ignition circuitry so the car will not start unless that switch is turned on. The installer will hide the switch somewhere reachable from the driver's seat but where thieves cannot quickly find it.

If thieves somehow defeat your precautions and get away with your car, then you have to hope police can find and recover it quickly. Your chances improve greatly if the car has some kind of tracking system. Here's a look at some options and their cost—from the long-established to the recently introduced. Some simply track stolen cars while others combine that with other services.

LoJack

The best-known tracking service, LoJack operates directly through participating police departments. Dealers or auto electronics shops install a device in your car that gives off a radio signal when activated. If you report your car stolen, police turn on that tracking signal remotely, and tracking devices in police cars and helicopters pick up that signal if it's nearby.

Never leave the keys in your car outside the convenience store thinking that you'll only be in there for a minute.

Jeremy Warnick, LoJack spokesman, says the rate of recovery for LoJack-equipped cars is 90%—compared with a 60% rate for all stolen cars. You pay a one-time fee with no subsequent monthly payments. The basic tracking capability costs $695. Pay an additional $300, and you also get notification by phone, e-mail, or text message if the car is moved without your permission (determined by whether a company-supplied key fob is near the ignition). The big drawback: LoJack isn't available everywhere—just in heavily populated areas of 27 states. (To check if your area is included, go to Lojack.com.)

OnStar

This emergency service on General Motors cars also can track a car when it's stolen. Most recent GM models (Chevrolet, Pontiac, Buick, Cadillac, Saturn, GMC, and Hummer) come equipped with OnStar technology; you have to pay a recurring subscription fee for the service.

For $18.95 a month or $199 a year, the basic level will notify emergency services if your car is in a crash or send you roadside assistance for a flat tire or other breakdown; for $28.90 a month or $299 a year, you get the basic plan plus navigation capability. With either plan, if you report your car stolen, OnStar can locate the car using a combination of cell phone and GPS technology—then tell police where to find it. With some 2009 and later models, if police notify OnStar operators they are tracking a stolen car, OnStar can send a signal disabling the accelerator—slowing the car and avoiding a high-speed chase.

GPS car trackers

These devices, often marketed to the parents of teen-age drivers, let you locate your car from your computer at any time. With a reorientation of the same technology that enables navigation systems to show a driver his or her current location, this instead sends that location to a Web site. For instance, the Zoombak Advanced GPS (global positioning system) Car and Family Locator sells for $149 and requires a $15 monthly fee. If the car is stolen, you can locate it and let the police know where it is. Zoombak also sells a competitor to LoJack for one up-front fee of $850 to $900 through auto dealers, with no further fees. Like Onstar, these locators work in most of the country.

Many car thieves are looking for the easiest target; they pass by vehicles that seem to present problems.

For someone who can afford more serious teen-tracking, devices such as the Viper 200 GPS ($599 plus $99 a year service fee) will notify you by cell phone or e-mail when your vehicle is being driven at more than a certain speed, say 80 mph. This plan also will give you early theft warning if your battery is disconnected or the car is being moved without the ignition turned on—for example, moved by tow truck.

And sometimes, that can be an issue. "Antitheft devices won't help you with a professional thief who just backs up a flatbed tow truck and takes the car," says Scafidi. "But fortunately that is not most thieves." So using whatever deterrents you can afford will help make your car—whatever the age—less of a target. And a good tracking system can even locate that car on the flatbed truck.

Jerry Edgerton is an automotive writer whose work has appeared in Money and other national magazines. He also is the author of "Car Shopping Made Easy."



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