Keys in ignition: Easy target for car thieves

John Egan

What's the easiest way for you to get your car stolen? Leave the keys in the ignition.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau, a nonprofit organization that combats insurance-related crime, and LoJack Corp., a producer of vehicle security systems, cite these statistics to emphasize that point:

• In 2010, the Baltimore Regional Auto Theft Task Force studied 400 criminal cases involving recovered stolen cars. The task force found that 85 percent had been stolen simply by using the keys that were in the car. That was up from 25 percent in a 1995 study.

• In 2009, the Arizona Automobile Theft Authority reported nearly one-fifth of all cars stolen in the state had keys left in them.

• In 2008, the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles reported that thieves stole nearly 90,000 cars in Texas. Of those cars, nearly half had keys that were left in the ignition.

'Perfect crime of opportunity'

In many cases, drivers leave their engines running to keep their cars warm or cool -- depending on the weather -- while they head into a convenience store or gas station to make a purchase.  "This leads to the perfect crime of opportunity for car thieves," says Jeremy Warnick, a spokesman for LoJack.

In some instances, Warnick says, a car owner leaves the keys in a vehicle while it's parked in a garage at home. Thieves easily can break into the home or garage and drive off with the car, he says.

While it may sound obvious, the insurance crime bureau and LoJack recommend that you never leave keys in a car while the engine is running. And don’t hide a spare key in or on your car.

Frank Scafidi, a spokesman for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, says: "About the only thing you can say about people who leave their keys in their cars is that I hope they have deep pockets, because they will be paying a lot of money for the inconvenience of having their cars stolen and all of the hassle that goes with that kind of event."

Car theft is covered under the comprehensive section of a car insurance policy, according to the Insurance Information Institute. Standard auto liability policies — required in every state but Iowa and New Hampshire — do not include comprehensive coverage. Adding comprehensive coverage means you’ll pay higher premiums than if you buy the basic liability coverage.

Hot months are hot times for stolen cars

July and August are the top months for car thefts in the United States, according to the insurance crime bureau. In 2010, more than 737,000 cars were reported stolen across the country, the FBI says.

Scafidi says national statistics aren't available concerning the number of cars stolen that already have keys in the ignition. In 2009, the 1994 Honda Accord was the most stolen car in the United States, according to the insurance crime bureau.

"We have known for some time that there is a good number of vehicles stolen each year by 'opportunists' — those who might see a vehicle with the keys in it and decide to take it for a spin. That’s a theft even if the vehicle is abandoned five blocks away," Scafidi says.

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