When John Jackson used to break into cars, he let bumper or windshield stickers guide him toward his targets. A sticker advertising membership in the National Rifle Association meant valuable, easy-to-sell guns might be inside. Scuba-diving stickers were another lure. “Dive gear is very expensive,” Jackson says. Stickers from martial arts schools promised the possibility of some cool martial arts weapons.
Today, Jackson is a legitimate business owner in Tampa, Fla., who volunteers with a church ministry to teach entrepreneurship to inmates. But during a misspent youth that included his own stint in prison, he learned to burglarize cars and picked up tips -- such as the one about bumper stickers that promote interests or hobbies -- that now can be used by motorists to prevent their cars from becoming break-in targets.
More than 1.7 million thefts from vehicles occurred across the country in 2009, according to the FBI. That number has held steady the past several years, despite efforts by law enforcement agencies and others to reduce it.
Still, Jackson and other experts say there are eight things you can do to lessen the chances of being one of those statistics:
1. Don't merely conceal valuables such as laptops, phones, purses and GPS units. Instead, place them in the trunk of your car, where they're completely invisible from the outside. “If you’re a burglar walking by a car, you’re not going to break into it if you don’t see anything,” says Mark Hanna, a spokesman for the Insurance Council of Texas, a nonprofit trade group for property and casualty insurers.
2. If you drive an SUV or another vehicle without a trunk, consider installing an alarm that uses visible and audible alerts to draw attention to a theft in progress and scare off thieves. “A lot of people think no one pays any attention if the alarm’s going off,” Hanna says. “But if you’re walking by a car and the alarm goes off, you do look. So it does work.”
3. Avoid dark, out-of-the-way streets if you can park in a well-lit lot that's buzzing with activity. In an attended lot, park your car near the attendant. At home, put your car in the garage if possible; if you can't do that, park in the driveway rather than on the street.
4. Be extra cautious in areas that are theft magnets, such as parking lots for hike-and-bike trails and fitness centers. Hanna says thieves count on exercisers to leave behind cumbersome objects like wallets and cellphones.
5. Encourage your neighborhood to participate in a crime-watch program. Frank Scafidi, a spokesman for the nonprofit National Insurance Crime Bureau, says: "That kind of very reasonable and inexpensive security works very well. It’s people looking out for each other. When they see something that doesn’t look right, they pick up the phone and call authorities.”
6. Be aware that thieves are constantly learning new tricks. One current trend is stealing gasoline from tanks of unattended vehicles. Another is stealing documents with drivers' names, addresses and other identifying information for use by identity theft rings. “There really is no way to inoculate your vehicle against a burglary,” Scafidi says. “An alarm in some cases may work, but it might just be an irritant for a determined thief, too.”
7. While it sounds elementary, don't forget to lock your car and take your keys. Many thieves are able to steal items in a car -- or a car itself -- because it was unlocked or the keys were in the ignition.
8. Peel off those bumper stickers. Except one. “There is one sticker you do want: a conspicuously placed alarm sticker," says Jackson, the former car burglar. "It doesn't matter if you even have an alarm.”
By the way, homeowner's and renter's insurance policies typically cover items stolen from vehicles. Basic auto liability insurance doesn't cover theft from vehicles. Neither does optional comprehensive auto coverage.