People left key fobs inside their cars and auto theft hit an 8-year high
Thieves stole more vehicles in 2017 than they had in any single year since 2009 — and the biggest reason might have nothing to do with criminals being cunning.
A combination of new technology and careless drivers spells opportunity for many criminals. And with the average price of vehicles climbing, there's added incentive as well.
With the proliferation of push-start buttons that can be activated as long as the key fob is inside the vehicle, it's easier than ever to drive off with someone else's car.
All thieves need to do is find a car where someone left the key inside, push the start button and hit the gas.
"You still see a lot of vehicles getting stolen because people ... make it easy," said Frank Scafidi, director of public affairs at the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
Vehicle thefts totaled 773,139 in 2017, according to recently released FBI statistics. That's up 12.6 percent from the all-time low of 686,803 in 2014.
The rate at which cars are being stolen — which measures volume of vehicles against the U.S. population — also rose for a third consecutive year in 2017, reaching its worst point since 2010.
While automakers brag that their vehicles are safer than ever and that simply hot-wiring a car might not do the trick anymore, that doesn't mean it's hard to steal one.
The number of vehicle thefts in which the criminal used the key spiked 31 percent from 2013 to 2015, according to an October 2016 report by the crime bureau. During that three-year stretch, thieves swiped nearly 150,000 vehicles using that method.
And it may be getting worse. Keyless ignition was standard equipment on 62 percent of cars sold in 2018, up from 11 percent in 2008, according to car-buying advice site Edmunds.
More incentive to steal
The incentive for stealing vehicles has reached historic highs, as well. The average price of a new vehicle was $37,188 in November, an all-time high and up about $3,000 from three years earlier, according to Edmunds.
Some thieves are conspiring with overseas contacts to ship stolen vehicles out of the country, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau and the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators. It's particularly lucrative for high-end models that can cost much more in foreign markets.
"Outbound shipping in the USA is not seen as high-risk, and the ports don’t have the available resources to check every shipping container," Reg Phillips, CEO of Ontario-based Vehicle Road Safety Solutions and international board chair of the auto theft investigators association, said in an email.
The FBI and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration did not respond to requests for comment.
To be sure, theft remains far below its all-time high of 1.66 million vehicles in 1991.
Scafidi said in the long run, technology will likely make it more difficult for thieves to get away with entire vehicles. For example, fingerprint scanning could be adopted to ensure only the owner can drive the vehicle.
But as often happens, when technology improves, so do the thieves.
"Thieves have caught up," Phillips said. "Manufacturers have added security platforms to newer vehicles, and the knowledge on how to circumvent these security features (is) more easily available."
Keys contribute to trend
Another potential reason for the increase: Thieves can use key fobs dropped in a public place to find a vehicle by remotely activating its horn with a tap of a button.
That's what happened to Maumelle, Arkansas, resident Kelsie Beaulieu after her boyfriend recently dropped her car keys when they went bowling.
"I never thought I’d have my car stolen," Beaulieu said. "As soon as we walked outside, I was like, 'Um, where’s my car?' And my heart sank a little bit."
Days later, the police arrested the suspected thief and recovered her 2011 Mazda3 sedan. But its interior had been trashed.
Andrew Steele of Troutdale, Oregon, had a similar experience when someone apparently grabbed the keys to his 2006 Ford Five Hundred from his girlfriend while she was shopping. He believes the thief used the key to find the car in a Walmart parking lot.
"They just hit the alarm button," he said. "They had to have done it that way."
Steele later managed to find his car in a public parking lot in Portland after someone reported on Facebook that they had seen it.
Afterward, he bought a $50 GPS device to attach to the bottom of his car to track his vehicle in the future.
One possibility that some experts are worried about is the prospect of thieves remotely swiping key-fob data and replicating it to start a vehicle and drive off.
But Scafidi of the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators said there hasn't yet been any proven real-world examples of that happening. Instead, it's more commonly used to steal things from the vehicle's interior.