Car Theft: National Auto Theft Trends (Part 1)

Part 1 of a 3 part article by DJ Thompson from

Auto theft reached a high in the 1990s, with 658.9 reported auto thefts per 100,000 inhabitants nationally, as reported in on In 1992, the federal Anti Car Theft Act of 1992 - P. L. 102-519; 106 Stat. 3384 - was passed, defining carjacking as a federal crime: using a firearm to forcibly take a motor vehicle is punishable by up to 15 years. If serious bodily injury or death results, the penalties are substantially greater, up to life in prison. Car thefts immediately began dropping, falling to 631.5 per 100,000 population in 1992. By 2008 the rate had been cut in half. By 2014, car theft hit a low of 215.4 per 100,000. In an article in the New York Times author Josh Barro mused that “stealing cars went out of fashion” and cited lower overall crime rates and technological advances in theft prevention technology as major factors.

There was something else going on as well: in 1991 and 1992, various legislatures and jurisdictions were creating auto theft task forces to study the problem of auto theft, recommend solutions, and share information about suspects and theft patterns. In 1991, the 72nd Texas Legislature established the Texas Automobile Theft Prevention Authority (ATPA)—the first statewide effort to reduce auto theft. In 1992, the Arizona Legislature established the Arizona Automobile Theft Authority (AATA). In October of that year, New Jersey General Assembly created the Assembly Task Force on Auto Theft with a mandate to study auto theft in the state and report back to the Assembly with recommendations.

Auto theft is a gateway crime that introduces juveniles to criminal activity, explains Mikel Longman in the article “The Problem of Auto Theft” (published in Forensic Investigation of Stolen-Recovered and Other Crime Related Vehicles). According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s (IACP) Vehicle Crimes Auto Theft Education Awareness Report, a car theft is often at the start of a succession of further related crimes. Stolen cars are often used in other crimes or used to finance gang activities, so it is no surprise that 97% of car thieves are also charged with arson, drug trafficking, kidnapping, burglary, fraud, or another crime, as reported in Auto Theft and Its Connection and Role in the Furtherance in Other Crimes – Colorado Case Studies 2013-2015 by Scott Casey.

With task forces underfunded or disbanded, auto theft is climbing again. Law enforcement has to work smarter with fewer resources. Without task force facilitation, inter-agency communication is more difficult. Law enforcement agencies around the country are finding ways to share information in the face of serious budget obstacles, but the real solution is to strengthen official support and funding for regional inter-agency task forces that have the time, resources, and personnel to investigate auto theft as part of larger crime patterns.

National Trends

While the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reported a low of 689,527 motor vehicle thefts nationwide in 2014, auto theft has climbed over the last few years nationally. The FBI say that increases in the Western region have outpaced declines in the Northeast and Midwest, for a total of 707, 758 estimated thefts of vehicles nationwide in 2015, an increase of 3.1%.

According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, the increase appears to be accelerating. In 2016, there were an estimated 765,484 thefts of motor vehicles nationwide, an increase of 8.1% over the previous year. Data from the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators (IAATI) say that auto theft rose 4.1% in the US during the first 6 months of 2017 while the FBI’s statistics show that overall property crimes dropped by 2.9% compared with the first half of 2016.  

Law enforcement recovered over $134 million worth of LoJack-equipped stolen vehicles last year, a 7% increase from 2016. For the ninth straight year, the top three states for stolen vehicle recoveries were California, Texas, and Florida, respectively.  The FBI data tells a similar story, with these states also ranking in the top three for total auto theft. However, the IAATI explains that many of the vehicles that are recovered are missing wheels or other key parts, and other vehicles end up in chop shops where they are quickly dismantled and sold piece by piece, never to be recovered.

Read on with “Regional Auto Theft Trends”, in part 2 of this Car Theft series.

Read on with “Auto Theft Task Forces & Potential Solutions”, part 3 of this Car Theft series.