California’s Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most beautiful drives in the country, stretching from Orange County to Ventura along azure water and verdant palms dotting some of the nation's most expensive real estate.
But if you take that drive, keep an eye on your ride: California dominates this year’s list of the cities with the most stolen vehicles.
“California has dominating the list for years,” says Frank Scafidi, the director of public affairs at the National Insurance Crime Bureau. There are simply many more vehicles there than in any other state, and way more people, he says: “With that combination you get more of vehicle theft activity.”
But loads of people don’t necessarily mean lots of theft. California’s proximity to Mexico plays a big role, too, since plenty of vehicles stolen there are found within 100 miles of the border. All told, seven Golden State cities made our list of the top 10 with the highest rates of auto theft in the country.
Behind the Numbers
We compiled our list using data from the NICB, a Des Plaines, Ill.-based nonprofit devoted to preventing vehicle theft and insurance fraud. The numbers come from each metropolitan statistical area in the country (they often include areas much larger than the cities for which they are named--for example, the MSA for Laredo, Texas, includes all of Webb County).
Theft rates are determined by a NICB formula that computes the number of thefts per 100,000 people. All of the cities on our list, from Fresno, Calif. (theft rate: 808.25 thefts per 100,000 cars) to Visalia, Calif., (theft rate: 472.78), had much more frequent instances of theft than the cities at the bottom.
Elmira, N.Y., for instance, has an auto-theft rate of just 30.39 thefts per 100,000 cars--that translated into just 27 cars stolen there last year. Ithaca, N.Y.; Harrisonburg, Va.; and State College, Pa., all reported theft rates of less than 50. They ranked Nos. 363, 364 and 366, respectively, out of 366 MSAs measured.
Top of the heap this year is Fresno, Calif. It’s not exactly a surprise—Fresno sat at the top last year and has been in the top 10 since 2007, when it ranked No. 11.
More surprising was the newcomer Anderson, S.C. Last year it ranked No. 33 on the nation’s car-theft hot spots. This year it ranks eighth.
“It has been trending in this direction,” Scafidi says. But last year it saw just 911 thefts, which was really low. A population boom there has pumped the listing, he added.
The Good News
At any rate, cars these days are much more difficult to steal than they were 20 years ago--and crime rates overall are dropping. FBI statistics for 2011 show a 3.3-percent drop in vehicle thefts since 2010, this thanks in large part to a decline in the ranking of Laredo, Texas. Laredo went from being rated at the No. 1 spot in 2009 to No. 53 in 2011. Within those two years, Laredo’s thefts had dropped 53 percent, from 1,792 to 849 cars stolen.
What's more, the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety reports that the frequency of theft claims for cars and SUVs has declined since as far back as 1998, even as the average insurance payment per claim has increased. Frequencies of theft since then have dropped the most for SUVs, from 4.9 claims per 1,000 vehicles in 1998 to 2.4 in 2008.
Improved technology has helped relegate the threat. GPS systems, highly sensitive alarms and electronic key fobs often thwart theft before it happens. (Tracking devices are great once a vehicle goes on the lam.) Of the nearly 52,000 Honda Accords stolen last year, more than 44,000 of them were made in the 1990s. Just 5,700 were made more recently than 2000. That sounds like the perfect excuse to buy a new ride.
So, how to avoid losing your wheels? Deploy the usual tactics: remove your keys from the car, lock your doors, roll your windows and engage an alarm. Smart keys and kill switches are also effective. And be especially aware of where you park.
“My number-one recommendation right now is that if you have a garage, use it,” says Terri Miller, the director of the Michigan-based Help Eliminate Auto Theft program. “Why do we put our junk in the garage and leave our $40,000 car in the driveway?”