QOTD — Auto Theft. Got Any Stories?

The other morning, I was browsing the online news bulletin that arrives daily from my son’s University. This day’s lead headline caught my eye due to the mentioning of cars before the usual spate of self-congratulatory “news” about giant lasers, notable faculty achievements, and dining hall hours.

Hummmmm. This reminded me that I’d seen a similar bulletin last semester about the prevalence of catalytic converter thefts from cars on campus. That previous announcement, I now recall, had inspired a rather mind-bending thread on the parents’ Facebook group where Facebook people were a) trying to explain to each other what “catalytic converters” are and b) enthusiastically recommending various companies in the University area that could install anti-theft devices on their kids’ cars to protect these mysterious parts. I think it was that conversation, with all of the abundant vigor, insight and reading comprehension skills exhibited by the same group of people who can spend several weeks discussing and recommending “cupcake delivery services” to other desperate parents of lonely (and presumably sugar-deprived) students, that sort of turned me away from the whole subject.

But now that University Public Safety had decided to publish a whole FAQ on Korean vehicle thefts, I figured that this may warrant a quick read. One thing lead to another, and here I am thinking more broadly about current trends in auto theft.

So, it turns out that 12 years worth of Kias and nearly that many years of Hyundais manufactured as recently as the 2022 model year don’t have imobilizers built into their ignition circuits? Good grief. Who would have known?

It appears that in this case yoots across the Internet learned about this Hyundai/Kia “feature” via Tiktok (of course they did). Having tired of other Darwin Award-worthy acts such as challenging each other to eat laundry detergent and stick metal coins in electrical sockets, the yoots of America have now moved on to unauthorized joy riding in some of the least expensive and joyless cars on American roads.

While it should be possible (with those potential fightin’ words) to start a spirited discussion here about the vehicular merits of the bulk of Kia and Hyundai models from the past decade, I rather think a significant part of what fascinates the general public about the current Kia and Hyundai “Challenges” relates to the surprise of learning that anyone would actually want to steal these generally low-end cars.

If that’s true, it’s because the general public probably hasn’t spent much time reviewing years worth of data related to auto theft statistics.

Since most auto theft in the US – and I would assume this is the case in other countries as well – ultimately involves interaction with the insurance industry, turns out that the go-to data source for information related to auto theft is the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB).  NCIB’s readily available on-line data sources about the prevalence of insurance coverage of losses due to theft offer an excellent immersion into simple descriptive statistics.  A quick review of NCIB data reveals some interesting factoids as well as lessons on why numbers do not always mean what they appear to mean. I’d love to use this data to teach a high school level consumer mathematics course.

State Name2019 Thefts2020 Thefts2019 Est Pop2020 Est Pop2019 Rate2020 Rate2019 Rank2020 Rank
District of Columbia 2,857 4,013 705,749 712,816 404.82562.9831
Colorado 21,299 29,162 5,758,736 5,807,719 369.86502.1262
California 160,377 187,094 39,512,223 39,368,078 405.89475.2423
Missouri 24,792 27,905 6,137,428 6,151,548 403.95453.6344
New Mexico 9,391 8,977 2,096,829 2,106,319 447.87426.1915
Oregon 15,253 16,333 4,217,737 4,241,507 361.64385.0876
Oklahoma 13,468 14,780 3,956,971 3,980,783 340.36371.2887
Washington 25,210 28,348 7,614,893 7,693,612 331.06368.4698
Nevada 12,169 11,481 3,080,156 3,138,259 395.08365.8459
Kansas 8,287 9,478 2,913,314 2,913,805 284.45325.281310
Texas 85,253 93,521 28,995,881 29,360,759 294.02318.521211
South Carolina 16,372 16,609 5,148,714 5,218,040 317.98318.301112
Tennessee 19,129 20,865 6,829,174 6,886,834 280.11302.971413
Minnesota 12,640 16,726 5,639,632 5,657,342 224.13295.652214
Arkansas 8,185 8,822 3,017,804 3,030,522 271.22291.101515
Utah 6,505 9,396 3,205,958 3,249,879 202.90289.122816
Louisiana 11,458 13,055 4,648,794 4,645,318 246.47281.041917
Alaska 2,385 1,978 731,545 731,158 326.02270.531018
Kentucky 9,521 11,541 4,467,673 4,477,251 213.11257.772519
Montana 2,313 2,751 1,068,778 1,080,577 216.42254.592320
Arizona 18,624 18,785 7,278,717 7,421,401 255.87253.121621
Nebraska 4,539 4,841 1,934,408 1,937,552 234.65249.852022
Georgia 26,907 25,968 10,617,423 10,710,017 253.42242.461723
South Dakota 1,659 2,163 884,659 892,717 187.53242.293424
Connecticut 5,944 8,541 3,565,287 3,557,006 166.72240.123825
Indiana 15,630 16,126 6,732,219 6,754,953 232.17238.732126
Alabama 12,252 11,336 4,903,185 4,921,532 249.88230.331827
Mississippi 5,910 6,720 2,976,149 2,966,786 198.58226.513028
Illinois 25,198 28,422 12,671,821 12,587,530 198.85225.792929
North Dakota 1,441 1,657 762,062 765,309 189.09216.513330
Ohio 22,602 25,271 11,689,100 11,693,217 193.36216.123131
North Carolina 21,321 22,638 10,488,084 10,600,823 203.29213.552732
Florida 46,465 44,940 21,477,737 21,733,312 216.34206.782433
Maryland 12,702 12,231 6,045,680 6,055,802 210.10201.972634
Iowa 5,673 6,378 3,155,070 3,163,561 179.81201.613735
Hawaii 2,694 2,723 1,415,872 1,407,006 190.27193.533236
Michigan 18,089 19,105 9,986,857 9,966,555 181.13191.693637
Delaware 1,790 1,875 973,764 986,809 183.82190.013538
Wisconsin 7,965 9,863 5,822,434 5,832,655 136.80169.104239
Rhode Island 1,519 1,643 1,059,361 1,057,125 143.39155.424040
West Virginia 2,747 2,606 1,792,147 1,784,787 153.28146.013941
Virginia 10,791 11,891 8,535,519 8,590,563 126.42138.424342
New Jersey 12,386 12,168 8,882,190 8,882,371 139.45136.994143
Wyoming638771 578,759 582,328 110.24132.404544
Pennsylvania 13,826 15,524 12,801,989 12,783,254 108.00121.444645
New York 14,257 20,700 19,453,561 19,336,776 73.29107.054946
Idaho 1,673 1,911 1,787,065 1,826,913 93.62104.604747
Massachusetts 6,202 7,010 6,892,503 6,893,574 89.98101.694848
Puerto Rico 4,005 2,111 3,193,694 3,159,343 125.4066.824449
Vermont377395 623,989 623,347 60.4263.375050
New Hampshire716738 1,359,711 1,366,275 52.6654.025151
Maine613709 1,344,212 1,350,141 45.6052.515252
794,019 880,595

It’s fun to slice and dice the NCIB data on theft rates by year (that’s the chart above, and you can find more years of comparison data here). There are a few outstanding points that emerge from examining the data, and in particular from taking that “15,000 foot” (not too low and yet not too high) view of data that I often advocate. First, the list of those states that have the highest auto theft rates tend to be fairly consistent. Colorado and California are consistently in the top 5 of states with the most auto thefts per person.  The theft rate in NCIB data is expressed as a function of state population – or as the number of thefts per 100,oo0 population (note that this is human population and not the number of cars registered in the state). I have no idea why these two states rank so much higher than other states with large populations such as Texas (generally below the top 10) and Florida (generally below the top quarter of states). Likewise, it’s hard to explain why DC (if you count it as a “state” as NCIB does) ranks so high in thefts. Its per person rate was the highest in the nation in 2020, and therefore higher than nearly all other states with similar populations, including some rather urban states such as Delaware and Rhode Island.  Yep, people are apparently relatively wild about auto theft in DC.

OK…so what kinds of cars were stolen in DC in 2020?

1Toyota Camry2020
2Honda Accord2016
3Toyota Corolla2016
4Honda Civic2016
5Nissan Altima2015
6Toyota Rav42018
7Hyundai Elantra2018
8Hyundai Sonata2011
9Jeep Cherokee/Grand Cherokee2015
10Chevrolet Malibu2020

That list looks to me more like what I see in the “Standard” or “Compact” category on the Avis website than anything approaching a list of cars that one might risk prison time in order to acquire. Just like on Avis, I too probably go for the Malibu (and hope for an upgrade at the counter) if I were browsing for a car to steal.  This, by the way, is akin to my rule of “go for the steak” when confronted with questionable quality food in some of the sketchy backwater places where my domestic U.S. business travel has taken me. I mean, putting aside vegan sensibilities for the moment, where the steak is concerned there’s only one thing to cook…what are the chances that this could be screwed up to the point where after eating it I’d be too sick to make it to tomorrow’s meeting? A rental Malibu is a safe steak in a world of potential automotive gastric disturbances. The full 2020 list of the top 10 vehicles stolen in each state is available here.  My point is that the most commonly stolen cars seem to inevitably be pretty dull, yet practical, choices.

When looking at the most commonly-stolen vehicles nationwide, DC’s top-10 list gets expanded to include the full-size pickups from GM and Ford.  Again, this makes sense as these are also among the most common vehicles in the country, and are also likely the most “needed”…if you make the assumption (as I do for the most part) that auto theft is largely the product of poor choices related to fulfilling need versus simply sheer stupidity (as would mostly be the case with eating laundry detergent).

The fact that run of the mill Toyotas are perennial favorites as stolen cars is not at all a new phenomena. In fact, of the two people I know who have had more than one run-in with car thieves, one had a Toyota and the other had two different Honda products stolen.

Here’s a car that is so sufficiently without following that I had a very difficult time finding a picture of one (winding up with this from the Toyota archives).  My friend’s 1984 Corolla was frankly a scary-dull piece of automotive dreck. Yet, it was repeatedly stolen when he lived in NYC in the mid-to-late 1980s. Each time, the car was recovered…generally within the same borough. I believe that he was relieved when it was recovered after the third theft in too damaged a condition to warrant continuing to drive it.

All things considered then, today’s fad for stealing 10 year old Hyundais is not at all surprising.

What’s equally easy to understand, and even more depressing to me, is the prevalence of stealing just the catalytic converters off of cars.  It’s said that the converters from hybrids are most desirable as they have the highest percentage of desirable metals within them. Likewise, the converters from SUVs and crossovers are most often stolen, presumably because they are easier to access and don’t even involve needing to jack the car up to chop them off.  Great.  Some jerk is going total my 2006 Highlander Hybrid by cutting off its converter.  The whole vehicle is probably worth less than what it would cost to replace the catalyst.  That would stink, although the chance of it happening seems to be growing steadily.

Getting back to the University Department of Public Safety bulletin that got me started this morning, the linked FAQ stated that the best deterrent to theft if one had a Hyundai/Kia with no interlock (i.e., most Hyundais and Kias from the past dozen years) was the good old fashioned “Club”, pictured at the top of this post. Geeze, I have two of those things in my basement from back in the bad-old-days in the 1980s when car theft seemed to be more of a pressing issue. Only it turns out that it wasn’t as pressing an issue as it is now. Times are strange.

I highly doubt that my Clubs have anything to do with the fact that I personally have never had a vehicle outright stolen. I have had cars broken into on NYC streets on multiple occasions back in the 80s and 90s. In fact, I came to assume that back in those days getting your window broken so that someone could riffle around inside your car was about a common as a parking ticket (it was for me and many urban-dwellers I knew). Likewise, whole vehicle theft was simply assumed as inevitable. I steadfastly refused to park on the street overnight when visiting friends in the City. I’ll probably always think of NYC that way. And yet, according to NICB data, NY is now one of the safest places in the country (see the above table for 2019 and 2020 data) in terms of auto theft. Go figure.

This, by the way, connects to the issue of “car alarms”…which were so much more common in the 80s and 90s than they are now. Nevertheless, there’s more auto theft now than there was at the time when I used to seriously think about attacking cars with a baseball bat in order to silence their alarms that regularly went off repeatedly in the middle of the night. I guess that’s another article altogether.

Alright CC community…what’s been your experience over time with auto theft?  Have you had one – or more – stolen?  Is this something that concerns you in your daily life?  What’s going on with Colorado and DC?  Oh, and if you know any scared Kia drivers, send them my way…I’ll start looking for the keys to my Clubs.  They’ve got to be around here someplace.