Auto Theft


JUNE 2002

After falling for eight years running, U.S. motor vehicle thefts rose by 13,500 or 1.2 percent to 1,165,559 in 2000, compared with 1999. In 2000, the value of stolen motor vehicles was almost $7.8 billion. Up 11.4 percent from 1999.

Insurance for theft is included in the comprehensive part of an auto insurance policy. This coverage, which is not mandatory, also covers fire, vandalism and weather-related damage. Premiums are affected by the number of insured cars stolen and their cost. The dollar size of claims has been going up, reflecting the higher value of new cars on the road, the cost of vehicle bodywork, which rose 3.8 percent in 2001 compared with 2000, and a 1999 Illinois court decision that led many insurers to stop using generic auto parts.


  • Every 27 seconds, a motor vehicle is stolen in the United States. The odds of a vehicle being stolen were 1 in 196 in 2000. The odds are highest in urban areas.

  • Only 14.1 percent of thefts were cleared by arrests in 2000.

  • Carjackings occur most frequently in urban areas. However, nationwide, they account for only 3.5 percent of all motor vehicle thefts.

  • The U.S. average comprehensive insurance premium rose 9.0 percent from 1995 to 1999, the most recent data available.


    2000 Theft Statistics: After eight straight years of annual decreases, motor vehicle thefts in the United States increased in 2000 from 1999. According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, 1,165,559 motor vehicles were stolen in 2000, up 1.2 percent from 1,152,075 in 1999. But because there are more vehicles on the road, the odds of a motor vehicle being stolen in the United States improved from one in 189 registered vehicles in 1999 to one in 196 registered vehicles in 2000.

    Increases in motor vehicle theft in 2000 were reported only in the West and Midwest. The greatest increase, 7.1 percent, occurred in the West and the Midwestern states reported a rise of 0.9 percent. Motor vehicle thefts declined 2.9 percent and 1.3 percent in the Northeast and the South, respectively.

    The 2000 motor vehicle theft rate per 100,000 people was 414, down 2 percent from 1999, despite the increase in the actual number of thefts compared to 1999, and down 21 percent from the 1996 rate. The highest rate was reported in the West, where 524 vehicles were stolen per 100,000 people, followed by 417 in the South, 378 in the Midwest, and 322 in the Northeast. Rates continue to be highest in urban areas — the motor vehicle theft rate was 929 for every 100,000 people in cities with over 250,000 inhabitants, the highest rate by city size. There were 217 thefts per 100,000 people in cities with less than 10,000 inhabitants, and 480 in cities of all sizes. In contrast, cities outside metropolitan areas [not connected to a metropolitan statistical area (MSA) which is composed of a large city and surrounding counties] had a theft rate of 199 and rural counties had a theft rate of 122. In actual numbers, motor vehicle thefts rose 1.4 percent in cities, compared with 1.2 percent nationwide. In cities with 100,000 to 250,000 inhabitants, thefts rose 4.1 percent, and cities with 250,000 to 500,000 inhabitants experienced a 4.0 percent increase. Suburban counties had an increase of 2.9 percent, and rural counties experienced a 1.6 percent rise.

    According to the FBI, the estimated value of motor vehicles stolen in the United States in 2000 was almost $7.8 billion, up from $7 billion in 1999. The average value of each motor vehicle stolen in 2000 was $6,682, up 9.5 percent from $6,104 in 1999. Law enforcement agencies apprehend only a small percentage of auto thieves — 14.1 percent in 2000, dropping from a 15 percent rate in 1999. Sixty-six and a half percent of all people arrested for motor vehicle theft were under 25 years old. People under 18 accounted for 19.8 percent of all motor vehicle theft arrests. The FBI notes that arrests of people under the age of 18 were down 2.6 percent from 1999.

    A number of factors contributed to the decline in motor vehicle thefts in the 1990s. Carmakers and aftermarket manufacturers developed a new generation of high-tech antitheft devices, which work in tandem with other, low-tech but highly visible devices such as the Club. Law enforcement agencies noted the progress made by specialized auto theft units and new programs.

    The favorable economy kept employment at high levels and drug use was down in cities. The increase in 2000 was the result of a variety of factors, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), including the slowing U.S. economy, the reassignment of many law enforcement officers from auto theft task forces, and international borders that are difficult to monitor.

    2001 Theft Statistics: According to an NICB study released in April 2002, all of the top ten U.S. metropolitan areas for vehicle theft are in or near ports or communities with easy access to Mexican or Canadian borders, as shown below:




    1 Phoenix, AZ 6 Tuscon, AZ
    2 Miami, FL 7 Tacoma, WA
    3 Fresno, CA 8 Stockton, CA
    4 Detroit, MI 9 Seattle, WA
    5 Sacramento, CA 10 Jersey City, NJ
    The study used theft data for 2001 for MSAs, which are major metropolitan centers consisting of several counties surrounding a major city. The NICB says that more than 200,000 vehicles are exported illegally from the United States every year.

    Theft by Model: For the fifth year running, Japanese imports were the most popular cars among thieves in the United States, according to the technology-based services provider for auto claims, CCC Information Services, which also surveys stolen vehicles. The top ten vehicles stolen in 2001 from CCC's annual survey of the most frequently stolen vehicles (which counts total losses — stolen and not recovered or completely totaled — of each particular model) are shown below:




    1 1999 Toyota Camry 6 1995 Honda Accord EX
    2 1989 Toyota Camry 7 1994 Honda Accord LX
    3 1990 Toyota Camry 8 1994 Honda Accord EX
    4 2000 Honda Civic SI 9 1988 Toyota Camry
    5 1994 Chervolet C1500 4X2 10 1996 Honda Accord LX
    2001 Data: CCC also found that the 350 North American property/casualty insurers it includes in its survey reported that vehicle theft decreased 2.7 percent in 2001, compared with 2000. Only five domestic vehicles made the top 25 list, including two Chevrolet trucks, a Ford truck and the 1993 Jeep Cherokee 4X4. Thefts of trucks and sport utility vehicles rose 7 percent from 1997 to 2001. The highest theft rate in the contiguous states was in Michigan, where thieves prefer domestic cars. Thieves favor imports in New York and California, which has the highest theft volume in the nation.

    In May 2002 the Highway Loss Data Institute, an affiliate of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, reported that the Acura Integra (2 and 4 door) had the most frequent theft claims among 1999-2001 car models. The Institute uses data based on the number of insured vehicles, and uses both frequency and the cost of claims. The Acura Integra's claim frequency was more than eight times the average for all cars and over two and a half times greater than the vehicle with the second highest claim frequency, the Jeep Wrangler. Other vehicles with high theft claim frequencies were the Jeep Cherokee 4WD, the Honda Prelude and the Mitsubishi Mirage.

    Different law enforcement agencies impacted by increases in the export of stolen vehicles have joined forces to combat the problem. The FBI, United States Customs Office, the NICB, several major insurance companies and state and local law enforcement agencies have formed the North American Export Committee (NAEC). The NAEC promotes the use of task forces, electronic data reporting and gamma ray (x-ray) machines to scan containers at ports. The NICB and the U.S. Customs Service have joined forces at 26 port and border locations to stem the export of stolen vehicles from the United States.

    Carjacking: The Department of Justice (DOJ) defines carjacking as the attempted or completed robbery of a motor vehicle that includes the use or threat of use of force. According to a 1999 DOJ report, between 1992 and 1996 (latest year of available data) there were an average of 49,000 carjackings each year, up from earlier estimates of about 35,000 each year during the period 1987 to 1992. The report shows that carjackings grew from 3 percent of all motor vehicle thefts in 1992 to 3.5 percent in 1996.

    Component Theft: Air bags are easy to remove and about 50,000 are stolen every year. NICB says that air bag theft costs insurers and vehicle owners more than $50 million a year. A new air bag costs about $1,000 from a car dealer; on the black market the cost is between $50 and $200. To thwart thieves, steering wheel covers used with a steel bar steering wheel lock are available. New York combats air bag theft by requiring accident reports to note air bag deployment, and specifies procedures for auto repair shops to follow when replacing stolen or deployed air bags.

    Antitheft Measures: In addition to tougher federal and state legislation being enacted (see background), in April 2002, the DOJ proposed rules for a stolen auto and parts database. The database would verify the theft status of salvage and junk motor vehicles and parts marked with vehicle identification numbers (VINs). The NICB is expected to be the system's administrator. Insurers and auto repair shops, salvage dealers and others would check VINs of salvage and junk vehicles and report them to the database to determine whether the vehicles were stolen. Insurance industry representatives are studying the proposal and preparing comments to be submitted by June 10, 2002.

    Consumers spent about $227 million in 2001 for electronic devices to protect their vehicles from theft, compared with $142 million in 1995, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. These aftermarket devices include keyless entry systems and vehicle tracking systems. Complex electronic tracking devices, such as LoJack, use a hidden transmitter to allow police, who have been alerted to the theft, to track the vehicle using a special computer. Besides the better than 90 percent nationwide recovery rate claimed by LoJack, the device leads police directly to chop shops, thwarts the export of stolen vehicles, and leads to the recovery of expensive construction vehicles.

    Insurer Discounts: Twelve states (Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, and Washington) require insurers to give car owners discounts on their comprehensive insurance for antitheft devices. Passive devices such as ignition cutoffs, some types of alarms, and electronic auto recovery systems which are automatically activated when the car is locked and do not depend on the driver to remember to activate them may qualify for up to a 30 percent discount. Massachusetts’s residents are eligible for a minimum 25 percent discount if they have both an antitheft device and an auto recovery system. In New Jersey and Georgia, the Insurance Commissioner may order discounts and encourage insurers to provide discounts. Insurance companies in states that do not mandate discounts have also encouraged car owners to install antitheft devices by providing discounts.


    Federal Antitheft Legislation: Federal intervention against car thieves began in 1919, with passage of the Dyer Act that made interstate transportation of stolen vehicles a federal crime. In 1966, the Federal government stepped in again, this time to require identification numbering of vehicles and a warning buzzer on ignition locks to remind drivers to remove their keys before leaving their vehicles.

    The Motor Vehicle Theft Law Enforcement Act (1984) was designed to thwart professional car thieves and chop shops by making it more difficult to sell stolen vehicles and parts, both domestically and overseas. The law toughened penalties by bringing parts under federal racketeering statutes and by imposing heavy fines and prison terms for export violations. It sought to dry up the illegal used-parts market by requiring manufacturers to stamp identifying numbers on major car components, making it easier to trace parts taken from vehicles stolen for dismantling. The law also required that vehicles be made available for inspection prior to export and expanded U.S. Customs officials' powers of inspection and arrest in response to the growing international nature of motor vehicle theft. Cars and parts of cars stolen in the United States often wind up on overseas markets. Insurers or their designated agents are required to inform the Secretary of Transportation of vehicle theft and recovery and rating data used to set insurance premiums for motor vehicles. Another 1984 federal law sought to prevent professional criminals from using counterfeit documents to dispose of stolen vehicles on the legitimate market. A provision in the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 made it a federal offense to counterfeit or forge motor vehicle title certificates.

    In 1985, the Department of Transportation issued rules requiring that beginning with 1987 model year cars, 14 major parts of vehicles be inscribed with a 17-digit vehicle identification number (VIN). The rule was relaxed somewhat for imported vehicles.

    The Anti-Car Theft Act, designed to reduce the number of car thefts nationwide by making armed auto theft ("carjacking") a federal crime, became law in 1992. In 1994, the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act made carjacking resulting in death a federal crime punishable by death. Other provisions of the 1992 law extended the program requiring the marking of 14 major parts of all cars including imports. Under the Act, repair shops that sell or install marked used parts must check VINs against the FBI’s stolen car database through a national clearinghouse or risk fines. Other provisions provided start-up funding linking all state motor vehicle departments to ensure access to titles; required states to check VINs of out-of-state cars before issuing a title to a new owner; required the Customs office to perform spot checks of cars and containers leaving the country; began a pilot program of x-raying containers to prevent the export of stolen vehicles; required insurers to certify that the salvaged or junked vehicles they sell are not stolen; and established a grant program for state and local anticar theft committees funded by car taxes or fees.

    In 1996, the Anti-Car Theft Improvements Act of 1995 which amended legislation enacted in 1992 became law. The Act upgraded state motor vehicle department databases containing title information to facilitate their use by federal and state law enforcement officials. The responsibility for implementing the electronic system, which was intended to enable users to instantly determine if a motor vehicle is stolen, was transferred to the Justice Department. The Act grants limited immunity from civil liability to the providers of titling information.

    Other Measures To Combat Auto Theft: The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) combats auto theft by investigating cases referred to it by insurers and through its online databases. The data bases allow member insurance companies to search its files by driver identification data and also by license plate numbers, VINs, and component vehicle part and type numbers. Information leading to the identification of the vehicle used in the World Trade Center bombing of 1993 was obtained through an NICB database that allows the user to enter a partial VIN. The complete VIN was reconstructed and matched to a van stolen from a truck rental company on the day of the bombing.

    State Legislation on Auto Theft: Industry experts recommend that states enact the following laws:

  • Vehicle Chop Shop, Stolen and Altered Property Act: Imposes criminal sanctions on persons involved with chop shops — garages or lots where stolen vehicles are brought to be stripped of their components.

  • Salvage Certificate Junk Vehicle Act: Helps to standardize salvage vehicle documents.

  • Vehicle Owner Fraud Act: Combats owner give-ups — where the vehicle owner is in collusion with others to file a fraudulent claim.

  • The False Police Reports Act: Makes it a crime to knowingly make, or assist with, a false report of theft, destruction or damage of any property to a law enforcement agency.

    Other Antitheft Measures: In the 1980s, states and regions experiencing high auto thefts began to form Anti-Car Theft (ACT) groups funded by voluntary grants from coalitions of law enforcement groups, state funds, insurers, and consumers to promote public awareness of vehicle theft and lobby for the passage of state legislation aimed at combating thefts. At least 10 states have enacted Automobile Theft Prevention Authorities (ATPAs), mostly funded by a small surcharge on driver's licenses or registration fees, or on auto insurance policies sold in the state. Michigan pioneered the ATPA concept in 1986, allocating $1 from each auto insurance policy and channeling the funds toward combating auto theft. Michigan's program, called Help Eliminate Auto Theft (HEAT) includes a toll-free hotline for residents to report thefts and chop shop operations. States that have implemented the programs report significant declines in auto theft and recoveries of stolen vehicles.

    ATPAs and other states that have formed ACT groups use a wide range of programs to fight auto theft in addition to the HEAT hotline programs. Combat Auto Theft (CAT) programs involve auto owners who voluntarily put stickers on their windshields that alert police that they can stop the car for a theft check after a certain hour. New York City's program covers more than 100,000 cars and boasts a low theft rate of 0.7 percent, compared with 7.1 percent for other vehicles in the city. High-theft metropolitan areas have instituted task forces to combat auto theft. Newark's task force helped reduce the city's theft rate from the highest in the United States in 1991 to sixteenth in 1996.



    Vehicles stolen

    % change
    1991 1,661,738 1.6%
    1992 1,610,834 -3.1
    1993 1,563,060 -3.0
    1994 1,539,287 -1.5
    1995 1,472,441 -4.3
    1996 1,394,238 -5.3
    1997 1,354,189 -2.9
    1998 1,242,781 -8.2
    1999 1,152,075 -7.3
    2000 1,165,559 1.2
    Source:  U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Uniform Crime Reports.
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