Anti-theft devices offer peace of mind, insurance discounts

Linda Melone

Vehicle technology is putting some car thieves out of business.

In 2010, vehicle thefts in the U.S. dropped for the eighth straight year in a row to their lowest level since Lyndon B. Johnson was president, according to FBI figures released in June 2012. In Michigan, for instance, the number of thefts fell 7 percent -- in line with the overall decrease nationwide. In New York, the drop was nearly 5 percent.

"The availability of new technology and anti-theft devices in new vehicle manufacturing make newer vehicles more difficult to steal than older models," says Frank Scafidi, a spokesman for the nonprofit National Insurance Crime Bureau.

Anti-theft devices not only reduce the risk of theft but also can earn you a discount on your car insurance.

Many insurers offer discounts of up to 35 percent if your car is equipped with LoJack, a stolen-vehicle recovery system. Discounts also may apply for other anti-theft measures, such as GPS tracking devices and automatic ignition shut-offs.

Keep in mind that this refers to a discount on comprehensive coverage, says Keith Verisario, vice president of All-Security Insurance Agency in Illinois. Comprehensive coverage involves non-collision things like theft, vandalism and fire.

Rundown of anti-theft devices

Anti-theft devices include steering wheel locks, hood and tire locks, alarms and kill switches. The latter, when activated, shuts down part of the engine's electrical system, which prevents the car from starting.

However, many anti-theft devices are not as effective as you might think, says Ron Montoya, consumer advice editor at automotive website Edmunds.com. "Most alarms are ignored," he says, "and most steering wheel locks can be easily removed."

Among the newer anti-theft devices, vehicle keys featuring computer chips make it much harder to steal a car, Montoya says.

After the late 1990s, manufacturers began placing a transponder chip in the plastic head of your car key. Transponder chips emit a signal to a receiver in the ignition. If this "immobilizer" detects the wrong signal — meaning that the wrong key is in the ignition — the vehicle won't start. This makes picking a lock (a common method used by car thieves to open a lock) ineffective.

Older cars not equipped with transponder keys increase the likelihood of theft. Most of the vehicles that topped the National Insurance Crime Bureau's most recent list of the most stolen cars in the U.S. lack transponder keys, including the 1994 Honda Accord, 1995 Honda Civic, 1991 Toyota Camry and the 1997 Ford F-150 pickup.

Coverage for stolen vehicles

Fortunately, you're covered if your older or newer vehicle is stolen as long as you have comprehensive coverage.

Your deductible applies (often $500) and then the carrier pays the "fair market value" of the vehicle, Verisario says. This value is determined by subtracting your car's depreciation from its original cost, according to Kevin Lynch, associate professor of insurance at The American College in Pennsylvania. 

Lynch says that if they're not stripped for parts in the U.S., stolen vehicles typically are shipped out of the country. And even if your car is recovered, it's usually damaged. "If this is the case, damages will be repaired, less your deductible, and the car will be returned to you," Lynch says.

How to protect yourself from car thieves

Certainly, the latest anti-theft technology can protect your car. But no anti-theft device is foolproof.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau recommends these four tips for keeping your car out of the hands of thieves:

1. Remove your keys from the ignition when you leave the car, lock your doors, close your windows and park in a well-lit area.

2. Consider a visible or audible device such as an alarm, steering-wheel lock or theft-deterrent decal -- a window sticker warning would-be crooks to anti-theft devices installed in your car.

3. Add an immobilizing device such as a kill switch -- a mechanism that shut offs the engine in emergencies.

4. Install a tracking device such as LoJack that sends a signal to police when a car has been stolen.

Free Insurance Quotes