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Don’t get jacked around by carjackers

Gina Roberts-Grey

In September 2012, a Buick Enclave belonging to “Extreme Makeover” reality star and personal trainer Chris Powell was carjacked in Arizona. Powell wasn’t in the car at the time. It was being driven by his nanny; Powell’s 1-year-old son also was in the vehicle. A gang member approached the car and threatened to kill the nanny if she didn’t get out.

Thankfully, all ended well. Not only did Powell’s son and nanny get home safely, but the car was recovered – ensuring Powell didn’t have to make an insurance claim.

Every year, scores of American drivers are forced to file claims with their car insurance companies for theft or damage stemming from a carjacking. Such claims fall under the comprehensive portion of your car insurance policy. Comprehensive coverage is optional, although many lenders require it if you’ve got an auto loan or lease.

According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, roughly 38,000 carjackings occur in the United States each year; that number is based on statistics released in 2004. Three-fourths of carjackings involve the use of a gun, knife or other weapon.

Carjacking is a crime of opportunity, says Matthew Porter, a spokesman for the San Antonio Police Department. And it’s frequently related to another crime.

“It’s often the result of a gang initiation, a source of quick cash for drug addicts or other criminals, and for carjacking teens, it’s a rite of passage, status symbol or thrill,” says Lawrence Kane, author of “Surviving Armed Assaults: A Martial Artists Guide to Weapons, Street Violence, and Countervailing Force.”

If you and your car are in a thief’s “right place at the right time,” you could be a target.

“We recommend always staying aware and vigilant. Know your surroundings and always pay attention,” Porter says. “Watch out for people hanging out on corners, panhandling at intersections and anything else that your instinct says is ‘off.’”

Also, be careful when you need to slow down or stop. Kane says carjackers commonly take aim at cars that are slowing down or stopping at locations like stoplights, stop signs, parking garages, parking garages and ATMs. 

Facing a carjacker

If you’re confronted by a carjacker, don’t fight back, as you may not know whether he’s armed.

“The best way to stay safe is to comply and call police immediately,” Porter says. Try to remain calm, and give the best description possible of the carjacker, he adds.

If your car is equipped with a vehicle tracking system like LoJack or OnStar, your next call should be to the tracking system’s call center (make sure you have that number stored in your cellphone). Powell’s car was recovered thanks to OnStar tracking.

Also, apps for electronic devices such as iPads can help police track down the carjacker, if the device is stolen along with the car.

One variation of carjacking is called “bump and rob.”

“In this scenario, a vehicle, usually with at least two occupants, rear-ends or bumps into you in traffic,” Kane says.

When you get out to exchange information with the other driver, one of the crooks jumps into your car and drives off, leaving you stranded. The carjacker’s partner drives off in the getaway vehicle.

Personal security expert Robert Siciliano says you should never get out of your car to inspect damage if your vehicle is “bumped.”

“Call the police or drive to a police station to survey the damage,” Siciliano says. If the other driver approaches your car to discuss damage, exchange documents and information through a slightly cracked window while you stay in the driver’s seat. “Keep the ignition on and be ready to drive away,” he says.

Reduce your odds of being a victim

Here are five tips on how to avoid being the victim of a carjacking:

1. Be ready to drive away. Keep the car in gear when stopped at a drive-up ATM or restaurant drive-through so that you can make a quick exit.

2. Don’t be predictable. Avoid following a routine by varying your route to work. Siciliano says carjackers target drivers who seem to be driving unconsciously, as if they know a route by heart. 

3. Avoid unwanted attention. Never leave valuables in plain view, even if your vehicle is locked or has an alarm system. Keep valuables in the trunk or hidden under a seat.

4. Go toward the light. Park in well-lit areas near building entrances, sidewalks or walkways. Try to park in an attended garage when possible and avoid parking near Dumpsters, wooded areas, large vans, big trucks or anything else that limits your visibility.

5. Keep it up. If someone walks up to your vehicle, never roll your window all the way down. “At the most, maybe just crack the window to have a conversation,” Porter says. Also, keep your docks locked at all times.

6. Stay alert. While sitting at stop signs or red lights, Porter suggests being aware of your surroundings. When approaching your vehicle in a parking lot or garage, have your keys ready to go. “Don’t dig through your purse or in your pocket outside of your vehicle,” Porter says.

7. Be suspicious. Be wary of people asking for directions, bumming cigarettes, handing out fliers or otherwise loitering around where you’re parked. And if possible, don’t walk to your car alone. “Try to walk with someone and if security is on site, ask for an escort,” Porter says. 

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