Car and truck thefts nationwide fell in 2011 by 3.3 percent, according to the FBI data released just last week, and thanks to a platoon of modern technology, car thieves haul off fewer vehicles today than at any point over the past two decades. But there's still more than 730,000 vehicles swiped every year -- and a new report released today pinpoints the 20 cities where thefts are most likely. If you live in California, you might want to invest in some vehicle security.
The National Insurance Crime Bureau calculates the rate of vehicle thefts for 366 cities based on registration data and insurance reports. That rate means even small cities can rank high for auto thefts if they suffer a breakout or two of wheeljacking in any given year. While 50,671 vehicles were reported stolen in the Los Angeles area last year, it only ranked 23rd-worst for overall theft rate, while the New York-New Jersey metro area and its 29,135 vehicle thefts ranked 193rd, between Canton, Ohio, and Ocala, Fla.
And while this year's top four cities are the same as last year's, some police departments have shown how to fight back successfully. Laredo, Texas had the nation's worst auto theft rate in 2009, but ranked 53rd this year, cutting thefts by more than half to 849 in 2011. The secret: More police officers, more public announcements about the problem and the purchase of two mobile monitoring towers that allow police to scan parking lots for suspicious behavior.
2011 Top 20 cities for auto theft
Of the 20 worst cities, California accounts for 12, mostly in central California, which has struggled to fund police departments and has cities choked with vehicles. Fresno police say they're already making progress on cutting auto thefts this year, telling The Fresno Bee that through March, thefts had been cut by a third. Washington State accounts for two cities among the top 10 with the highest theft rate, with Spokane fourth and Yakima jumping to fifth from 10th. The only East Coast city in the top 25: Anderson, S.C., a town of 25,000 which saw auto thefts jump 30 percent to 911 vehicles in 2011.
The least likely place for a car thief to strike? State College, Penn., with Elmira, N.Y., and Harrisonburg, Va., close behind. Rural cities tend to dominate the bottom of the list, simply due to less opportunity for a thief to strike. The full list can be found on the NICB website.
To prevent thefts, the NICB recommends every car get not just an alarm, but a tracking device -- such as General Motors' OnStar or the LoJack add-on systems -- and an ignition override, like smart keys or hidden shut-off switches. Other tips: Have some form of visible security, such as a steering-wheel lock or alarm window decal. And don't leave the car unlocked, a tip that should be common sense by now -- but given how sophisticated some thieves have become, every extra step could be the one that protects you.