Car thieves don't take a holiday on New Year's Day

Gina Roberts-Grey

For some American car owners, ringing in the New Year may mean more than popping open a bottle of champagne and kissing your sweetheart at midnight. It also may mean a call to your car insurance agent after your car has been stolen.

Tod Burke, professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Virginia, says: “While you are celebrating … a new year, car thieves are doing their homework. They’re looking for drivers who’ve let down their guard and made their vehicle vulnerable for theft."

In 2010, New Year’s Day was the No. 1 holiday for car thefts in the United States. On that day, 2,347 cars were stolen across the country, according to National Crime Information Center data analyzed by the nonprofit National Insurance Crime Bureau.

Why is New Year's Day so big for car thieves?

“There’s no real science behind why New Year’s Day is the most active vehicle-theft holiday,” says Frank Scafidi, a spokesman for the National Insurance Crime Bureau. “It could just be that people are sleeping off their celebration haze from the night before and leave their vehicles in places that they would not normally leave them -- putting them at risk should a thief happen upon them.”

Also, it could be that some tipsy revelers simply forget to take the keys out of their cars' ignitions.

“Anything is possible. We don’t have sufficient data to pinpoint why the increase in thefts on this one holiday,” Scafidi says.

Anti-theft tips

Michael Maledon, CEO of Inilex, a company that works with dealers to sell theft-recovery devices, says these five tips can help reduce the odds that a thief will drive off with your ride on New Year’s Day or any other day of the year.

1. Never leave the doors or rear hatch unlocked. Leaving doors and hatches unlocked gives thieves an easy way into your car.

2. Always activate your car alarm or other anti-theft devices every time you leave your vehicle -- even if you’re just running in to a convenience store to pay for gas or grab a gallon of milk.

3. Don’t park in places that are attractive to thieves. Dark or dimly lit areas and out-of-the-way spots are playgrounds for car thieves.

4. Keep your keys under wraps. Don’t leave them on the front seat, under the floor mats or anywhere other than tucked safely in your purse or pocket.

5. Consider installing a GPS-enabled device so you can instantly track your car if it's stolen. A bonus: This could save you as much as 3 percent on your auto insurance premiums.

Are you insured?

Car theft is covered under the comprehensive portion of your car insurance policy. But many drivers don’t carry comprehensive coverage, as it's optional and adds to the cost of your policy.

Even if you have comprehensive coverage, it may not be enough to pay for a new car, says Eli Lehrer, vice president of The Heartland Institute, a nonprofit think tank. “In many cases, few cars more than 10 years old are worth more than a few thousand dollars," he says, "so after a deductible is paid, you may end up with little or nothing.”

Lehrer notes that you can buy an add-on to your policy that covers the "original value" of your car. But even then, he says, it might not be quite enough to cover the full replacement value of your car.

Holiday car thefts on the decline

A total of 20,995 cars were reported stolen on the 11 holidays in 2010 that were reviewed by the National Insurance Crime Bureau. That’s down from the 22,991 reported stolen for the same days in 2009.

But even though those numbers have decreased, Scafidi says drivers must be vigilant about preventing car theft. “There is always a black market for items obtained by theft," he says, "and vehicles remain popular theft targets.”

Here’s a look at car theft figures compiled by the insurance crime bureau for 11 holidays in 2010:

1. New Year’s Day -- 2,347. 2. Memorial Day -- 2,122. 3. Halloween -- 2,064. 4. Labor Day -- 2,020. 5. New Year’s Eve -- 1,986. 6. Christmas Eve -- 1,928. 7. Independence Day -- 1,914. 8. Presidents Day -- 1,903. 9. Valentine’s Day -- 1,745. 10. Thanksgiving -- 1,605. 11. Christmas Day -- 1,361.

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