'Most wanted' items and parts that thieves steal from your car

Chris Kissell

Millions of Americans view their car as a home away from home. But thieves see those rolling sanctuaries as something else – potential gold mines.

Stolen motor vehicle accessories made up 9 percent of all larceny-theft crimes in the United States during 2010, according to the most recent statistics from the FBI.

A skilled thief can strip a car of its major parts in 30 minutes, then turn around and sell the individual items for two to four times the vehicle’s value, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Thieves also target valuables left inside the car, such as CDs, shopping bags and laptops.

“During a car burglary, the criminal is not picky and will take anything that is not tied down,” says J.D. Hough, a lieutenant in special investigations with the Arizona Automobile Theft Authority.

By the way, theft is covered by the comprehensive portion of your car insurance policy. Comprehensive coverage is optional, but lenders typically require it if you have an auto loan or lease.

Here are a few items near the top of the car-theft hit parade, and tips for keeping such property from falling into the wrong hands.

GPS units and DVD players

An expensive car stereo long was among the most tempting targets for car thieves. However, stereos are less valuable on the street than in past years.

The reason? Car manufacturers have forsaken the tinny factory stereos of yesteryear and now install high-quality music systems in today’s new cars, reducing demand for replacements. 

In 2009, NPR cited FBI statistics indicating that car stereo thefts had fallen by more than half over a 15-year period.

Today, GPS units and DVD players are more likely to be in a thief’s crosshairs, says Terri Miller, executive director of Help Eliminate Auto Thefts (HEAT), Michigan’s auto theft prevention program.

“The GPS and the DVDs are so much more valuable and desirable,” Miller says.

The best way to prevent thefts of such devices is to park in garages when you can, and to pull into well-lit areas when you must park on the street, Miller says.

Catalytic converters

It is easy to imagine a thief eyeing that fancy new GPS unit or pimped-out stereo system.

But why would anyone want a catalytic converter?

This device takes the toxic byproduct of your car’s engine combustion and converts it to something less unsavory. Thieves like catalytic converters because they contain valuable metals such as platinum, palladium and rhodium. The cost of such precious metals has soared in recent years.

“Catalytic converters are a very popular item to steal and sell at scrap yards,” Hough says.

The catalytic converter is underneath the vehicle. Theft is especially common in SUVs and trucks because they sit high above the ground, making it easier for thieves to shimmy underneath and claim their booty. 

Preventing these thefts can be difficult. However, Cynthia Tolsma, executive director of the Pennsylvania Auto Theft Prevention Authority, offers one suggestion.

“It is now possible to have catalytic converters etched with the car’s VIN (vehicle identification) number, which may be a deterrent,” she says.

Air bags

Air bags are another less-than-glamorous target of many auto crimes. Thieves sell these parts to less reputable car repair shops.

“Unscrupulous shop owners use them to replace an air bag after a crash,” Miller says.

Installing secondhand air bags is dangerous. It also constitutes insurance fraud on the part of a repair shop, Miller says. “They are supposed to use original equipment,” she says. In most cases, she adds, “you as an owner have no idea this has happened.”

Miller suggests demanding to see the invoice for a replacement air bag before it’s installed.

It’s simple to snatch an air bag. “It's basically peeling up the plastic cover over the steering wheel and unplugging a couple of sensors,” Miller says. However, most thieves require training before they hit the streets in search of air bags because “it’s pretty dangerous if the airbags deploy.”

Thefts are difficult to prevent. Automotive steering locks that cover the steering wheel may serve as a deterrent.

Over the long haul, the ultimate method of thwarting such thefts may be to report any suspicions you have about shady repair shops to either a statewide hotline such as HEAT (800-242-HEAT for Michigan residents) or the National Insurance Crime Bureau (800-TEL-NICB).

You may even qualify for a cash reward. For example, HEAT pays up to $10,000 for information that leads to the arrest and the guarantee of a trial date for members of theft rings operators of chop shops.

“If we are drying up the market for those parts, there’s going to be less theft,” Miller says. 

Personal items

It happens every day. Perhaps you go to the beach and leave an iPod in a cupholder, only to return and find it gone. Or you leave a purse on the front seat while dashing in to pick up a child from day care, and return minutes later to a broken window and new worries about identity theft.

"Personal property (is) very easy to take once it’s inside the vehicle," Hough says.

Hough says thieves will take “whatever is quick and accessible to get without spending much time.”

Using common sense can prevent such thefts. Keeping cars and windows locked helps. But even if you do so, leaving things like money or expensive sports equipment where they’re visible is “an invitation to a break-in,” Tolsma says.

So leave valuables at home when you can, or to take them with you after you park.

Tires and wheels

As long as there have been cars, people have needed tires and wheels. New technology allows thieves to grab tires more quickly, and online marketplaces make them easier to sell.

The New York Times recently reported a case in which a local Honda dealership lost 72 wheels in a single episode.

Hough says he has seen the problem in Arizona.

“We had a rash of tire and wheel thefts a few years back,” Hough says. “After apprehending the group responsible, it has not been an issue.”

Tire locks and lug nut locks can help keep your wheels on your car, where they belong. But Miller says the key to preventing thefts of all the auto parts on this list is to avoid shopping for parts on websites such as Craigslist, where “if the price is too good to be true, it probably is.”

“People aren’t going to steal these parts if there is no demand for them,” she says. 

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