Theft-proof? Car security methods abound, but common sense may be best |

Theft-proof? Car security methods abound, but common sense may be best

One night in January, Terry Wearne parked his 1986 Toyota pickup in front of his Walsh Street home. He made sure to lock it and take all his valuables inside.

The next morning, his truck was gone. It was one of five vehicles stolen from downtown Grass Valley in one night.

“It scares you and hurts you,” Wearne said. “Other than standing out in front of everyone’s house 24 hours a day, what else can you do?”

According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which studies vehicle theft trends, Northern California, especially along the Interstate 5 corridor, is one of the vehicle theft hot spots in the country.

Wearne was luckier than most because his truck was found – smashed, but found – five days later in Loomis. Many of the cars stolen from the area are either taken apart in chop shops or taken to Mexico, according to the crime bureau.

While the majority of vehicle thefts are that of unlocked cars or trucks, thieves can get their hands on any car they want if they tries hard enough, according to the insurance crime bureau. Various anti-theft devices may slow thieves down but likely won’t stop them if they’re determined.

Disturbing trends

Modesto was the number one vehicle theft hot spot in the country in 2003, the year with the most recent statistics. Sacramento held the fifth spot in the nation, and Fresno was sixth.

Crime bureau spokesman Frank Scafidi said the most commonly stolen cars are Toyota Camrys and pickups, Honda Civics and Accords, and Chevrolet pickups.

“There’s more of them sold,” he said. “There are more of them out on the road. The thefts are usually used to feed the illegal body sales and repair industry. A lot of them make their way to Mexico.”

Several cars stolen from Nevada County were also recently found near Sacramento – one in Folsom, one in Citrus Heights and one near Rocklin.

Wearne’s truck was found in Loomis shortly after someone crashed it into a telephone pole and abandoned it, Wearne said.

“The front end was all smashed in,” he said. The thieves “put 450 miles on it. It was covered in mud. There was a lot of stuff in it that didn’t belong to me.”

Because Wearne did not have theft insurance on the truck, he will have to pay for the fix-ups. He also had to pay for a tow back to Nevada County.

Pre-emptive measures

Car owners who want to prevent thieves from stealing their wheels have many options. The most common devices are car alarms. Jim Inman, manager at Tunez 4 U, a business specializing in auto accessories, said alarms are the best deterrents against potential thieves.

“Nine times out of 10, a thief will leave that car alone and go on to the next one,” Inman said.

Inman, who said he has been selling auto security alarm systems for 15 years, sells several alarm systems, such as a key ring that lets the vehicle’s owner know if it has been hit or if any doors have been opened, as long as the owner is within 1,000 to 2,000 feet of the car.

A blinking light inside the car lets potential thieves know that it will take time to steal the car, and they will not want to draw attention to themselves, Inman said.

The systems also have an optional motion sensor that detect a light impact – such as someone knocking on the car – to full impact, such as a window breaking.

“These options go up to a full tracking device,” Inman said. “You can go online and figure out where your vehicle is. Prices can get astronomical, but you have a peace of mind.”

But car alarms have a downside – they are often ignored by passers-by, and they can be silenced in seconds. Other anti-theft devices aren’t foolproof, either.

Steering wheel or steering column locks, such as The Club, can be disarmed by cutting off the steering wheel with bolt cutters and hot-wiring the car. Pedal locks, which go around the car’s pedals to prevent driving away, can be dismantled by bending the pedals and sliding the lock off.

An electronic immobilizing device, such as a smart key that the driver has to scan before the vehicle can start, is usually effective by disconnecting the power from the starter – preventing thieves from bypassing the ignition and hot-wiring the car, Scafidi said. However, professional thieves can dismantle the system.

Global positioning systems can be used to track vehicles after they have been stolen – unless the devices are removed at a chop shop – but the trackers do not prevent theft so much as help find the car afterward.

Protecting your ride

The National Insurance Crime Bureau recommends a layered approach to preventing auto theft. The outer layer is common sense. Drivers should not leave their vehicles unlocked or leave a key inside the vehicle, according to the crime bureau’s Web site. At night, vehicles should be left in well-lit areas.

Many bad things can happen if those suggestions are not followed. On Dec. 30, Lake Wildwood resident Robert Chappell and his wife parked their two vehicles in their driveway, in front of their home. Their Ford F-150 pickup was locked, but their Ford Focus was not.

That night, thieves got into the Focus and found $40 cash, jewelry, clothes – and the keys to the F-150.

“We got the call from security at 5 a.m.,” Chappell said. “They tried to drive the truck out of my driveway but got caught in a ditch and abandoned it.

“Make sure both cars are locked and take the keys inside,” he said. “Just because we live in a gated community, we are not safe.”

The second layer of anti-theft protection is a visible device or audible alarm which alerts would-be thieves that the vehicle is protected. The third layer is a device that stops thieves from bypassing the ignition and hot-wiring the vehicle. These include smart keys and kill switches, which slow the flow of electricity or fuel to the engine until a hidden switch or button is activated. That way, the battery will die before the car starts.

“It takes the juice and diverts the energy into some dead end,” Scafidi said. “The trick is putting it where someone won’t find it.”

The final layer of protection is a tracking device.

“There’s no one thing that’s the preferred method,” Scafidi said. “You can spend a lot of money and it will give you a sense of security, but if someone really wants your car, I don’t care if it’s encased in concrete, they will find a way to get it.”

The options – Protecting your vehicle from theft

Audible alarms

Horn sounds when the vehicle is hit, and a dash light blinks to let thieves know there is an alarm.

Price: Several hundred dollars or higher.

Steering wheel/column bar (ie, The Club)

Prevents turning of steering wheel.

Price: $20-$40

Pedal lock

One end goes through the pedals, the other end goes through the steering wheel, preventing pedals from depressing.

Price: $20-$25.

Electronic immobilizing device (smart card)

Disconnects the power from the starter. Driver has to scan card before the vehicle can start.

Price: About $200.

Satellite tracking system

Can be used to track vehicles after they have been stolen – unless the system is removed at a chop shop – but they do not prevent theft.

Price: Usually a monthly fee of about $20-$40, plus installation

Door locks

One of the oldest auto security measures. Simply locking your doors, police say, can dramatically reduce the risk of theft.

Price: Included on most cars since around 1910.

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