Help, I've been carjacked!

Linda Melone

You're driving home from work and pull into a convenience store. You notice a guy lurking around the gas pumps. Suddenly, the guy flashes a pistol, forces you out of the car, jumps into the driver's seat and takes off.

You've just been carjacked.

Thankfully, you're physically unharmed. But does your car insurance policy cover you? Not all policies do.

Are you covered?

Auto theft -- even at the hands of a carjacker -- is covered under the comprehensive section of your car insurance policy, according to the Insurance Information Institute. However, that coverage is optional, not mandatory. The coverage applies to the loss of the vehicle as well as air bags and other parts of the car.

"There is no difference in … coverage between a stolen vehicle and a vehicle that has been carjacked," says Dawnyel Smink, owner of Canyon Lands Insurance in Mesa, Ariz. "They are both covered under an insured's comprehensive coverage at the deductible you have chosen. If you have liability (coverage) only, then there is no coverage for the vehicle in either situation."

The contents of your car are covered under your homeowner's or renter's insurance policy, Smink says. If the carjacker drives off with expensive items such as jewelry or antiques, however, these are covered only if they're declared on your homeowner's or renter's policy.

Carjacking defined

Carjacking happens when you're robbed of a vehicle, says Brian Baker, a security management consultant and an adjunct professor of criminology at Penn State University. A carjacker usually has different criminal motives from a car thief, Baker says.

"A car thief will use stealth and planning or a vulnerable opportunity to take a vehicle with the least risk of apprehension," he says.

By contrast, a carjacker use forces to snatch your vehicle and likely is motivated to use your ride for transportation or for illegal drug activity, says Baker, who nearly became a carjacking victim himself. While stopped at a red light at an intersection off a highway exit, a man grabbed the door handle of Baker's car in an attempt to get in. Baker's locked car door prevented the would-be carjacker from entering. Baker quickly checked for oncoming traffic and zipped through the intersection to escape.

According to an FBI report from 2009, a motor vehicle is stolen in the United States every 40 seconds. Carjackings occur most frequently in urban areas and account for 3 percent of all vehicle thefts, based on U.S. Department of Justice data from 1993 to 2002.

Preventing a carjacking

Carjackings most often happen at parking lots, shopping centers, gas stations, car washes, convenience stores, ATMs, hotels, valet parking spots, fast-food drive-throughs and retail stores, says Chris McGoey, a security expert who founded CrimeDoctor.com. Close proximity to a highway on-ramp (as in Baker's case) provides an easy getaway for a carjacker.

Anyone can be a carjacking victim, McGoey says. "Many people believe it only happens in big cities and to people with fancy cars, which is not the case," he says.

Keep these tips in mind to avoid becoming a carjacking statistic:

  1. Be alert to your surroundings and -- to young males, who most closely fit the carjacker mold -- as you approach your vehicle.
  2. Always park in well-lit areas.
  3. Use valet parking or an attended garage, particularly if you're a woman driving alone.
  4. Ask for a security escort to your car if you're alone at a shopping center.
  5. As you approach your vehicle, look under, around and inside your car. If it's safe, open the door to your car, enter quickly and lock the doors.
  6. Don't stop at isolated pay phones, ATMs or newspaper machines.
  7. If another car bumps you car, stay inside with the windows shut and door locked, then drive to the nearest police or fire station.
  8. Don't fight with or resist a carjacker.
  9. If you are forced to drive, consider crashing your car near a busy intersection to attract attention so bystanders can come to your aid and call police.

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