Vehicles have become more valuable, as have parts due to pandemic constraints, and therefore more tempting to thieves. But they’re also getting easier to steal.  -  IMAGE: Pexels/cottonbro studio

Vehicles have become more valuable, as have parts due to pandemic constraints, and therefore more tempting to thieves. But they’re also getting easier to steal.

IMAGE: Pexels/cottonbro studio

We’ve all been there. You’re just trying to gather your things, step out of your car, and get to where you’re going, but your car alarm starts blaring repeatedly. Who knows why? Hands full, you drop everything to fish around for the key to stop the infernal noise and avoid undue embarrassment. It takes what seems like minutes, but finally you find it, press a button, and the annoying delay ends.

Of course, likely nobody even dreamed that someone was in the process of stealing your car. More likely they hoped along with you that the noise would just stop.

This is most people’s experience with what may be one of the most hated devices ever to be included on a vehicle because of just this scenario. Yet the manufacturer-installed alarm – really just the horn on automatic repeat – remains. That’s because people want to be alerted if someone messes with their vehicle.

“People still steal vehicles,” says Chris Cook, president of the Mobile Electronics Association, whose members include most of the automotive security manufacturers. In the early 1980s, he had a business in Florida that installed that era’s vehicle theft deterrent, a round key with a level sensor that was placed inside the fender and would activate if someone jacked up the car.

“You’re trying to bring attention to the vehicle, that something’s wrong with the vehicle,” Cook says. “People expect some sort of security system.”

Vehicle-security experts say that although the factory-installed alarm is undoubtedly a nuisance and so often ignored as such that some type of alarm is advisable as part of a layered approach to prevent theft. U.S. vehicle thefts rose 2% year-over-year in the first half of 2023 to nearly 500,000, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, so they’re a problem that can’t be ignored.

Thieves Run Amok

It’s a problem that’s apparently growing. Over a million vehicles were stolen nationally last year, more than in any year since 2008, during the Great Recession, and up 7% over 2021 numbers, according to the insurance industry group, and the increase is driving up insurance premiums. Vehicles have become more valuable, as have parts due to pandemic constraints, and therefore more tempting to thieves. But they’re also getting easier to steal.

Thieves are getting more sophisticated in their techniques and using electronic means first, the technology they employ sometimes disguised to look like wireless speakers, for instance, but used to pick up the proximity signal of the car’s key inside the owner’s house and relaying it to the vehicle outside, says Andrea Amico, founder of Privacy4Cars. His company sells vehicle-protection products and privacy-protection for dealerships, fleets and other industry players. Many thieves today don’t even know how to pick locks, he says.

Criminals’ resourcefulness and the fact that many carmakers haven’t yet gotten ahead of today’s tech-savvy thieves demands the aforementioned layered approach, Amico and other experts say. Park under a streetlight, lock your door, for goodness’ sake, and don’t leave any valuables in sight inside, says recently retired New York Police Department detective Tom Burke, who spent 30 years investigating automotive crime.

Then there’s vehicle identification number etching. And deterrents still even include the low-tech steering wheel lock, which is making a comeback among vehicle owners. “Thieves don’t carry a hacksaw anymore,” Burke says. Kia and Hyundai, facing lawsuits over the easy thefts of their models without what’s now industry-standard immobilizing software that works via a matching coded key, have distributed the locks via police departments to distribute to owners of the vulnerable vehicles.

The manufacturer-provided alarm using a vehicle’s horn is the next line of defense, though many thieves ignore it, Cook says, because it’s no more than the valet locking system and therefore much easier to get around with a digital bypass.

This is the annoying horn alarm that has driven many a neighbor and passerby to distraction. Finding one of those to be the sole protector of a vehicle, a thief can sometimes simply tear an antenna off the exterior and drive away in it, says trainer Gerry Gould of Tampa-based Gould & Associates, which provides F&I coaching and training.

The Hated Horn

But Burke, the detective, says he thinks the basic horn alarm is still a deterrent to amateur thieves, and in his experience, most car thieves are amateurs wanting a joy ride. But the professionals are out there, and he agrees with Gould that they’ll likely know how to defeat that layer. Once inside the car, they can disconnect the horn. “And it’s over with.”

Those are some of the reasons that, among those whose vehicles don’t already come with higher-tech protections, there’s been an uptick in the purchase of after-market alarms, Amico says. Those come with programmable, more siren-like sounds, rather than the blowing car horn, and are much louder than the former. Using a variety of sensors, some activated by movement or pressure changes, they often include GPS tracking, so that even if a thief gets away with the car, it can be traced. He says consumers can also download a smartphone application that alerts them if someone starts their vehicle.

The after-market alarms, which can range in price from several hundred dollars to several thousand, can also come with key fobs that work from as far as 3,000 feet from the vehicle rather than the 30 feet typical with factory-provided ones, says Cook, who has one for his personal vehicle.

“I know where the vehicle is. I can stop the vehicle if someone takes it. I can set the alarm off when the thief’s in it,” he says. “You put an after-market system on your car, it’s not going to get stolen.”

How to Sell Alarms?

To convince consumers they need such security products, finance-and-insurance departments must both familiarize themselves with the technologies and learn why each customer needs them for his or her particular situation, Gould, the trainer, says. Agents can guide dealerships to seek out the information or provide it to them, then encourage them to bookmark sites they’ll go to again and again to share with consumers, such as the National Insurance Crime Bureau and AAA.

Valuable statistics that turn F&I managers into subject matter experts who gain credibility with consumers include theft risk for the places that consumer lives and works and for the model they’re buying or leasing, as well as insurer discounts for security products.

“I find F&I managers don’t take the time to find that information,” says Gould, who recalls that when he joined the auto industry in the late 1970s, kill switches were hidden in car interiors and Chapman locks blocked thieves from opening hoods. “Then there was the sledgehammer you kept in the trunk or in your house so you could go and beat the s--- out of them,” he says with a chuckle.

“You have to have a conversation that makes sense to the customer, doing an introduction early in the process and determining where the customer lives, what the customer does,” Gould says. “There are articles all over the internet that we instruct F&I managers to seek out to validate their claims. It really has nothing to do with the product but what the customer may see in the future. ‘Do you know anybody who’s had a vehicle stolen? How did they feel?’”

Inevitably, many customers will resist, pointing out that they park their car in a garage or live in a gated community.

“‘You’re not always in a garage,’” Gould recites, modeling an effective response. “‘What about when you go to a movie theater, where your car is more vulnerable? Your car isn’t in a gated community 24/7. You never valeted your car?’” he says, referring to the reality that thieves sometimes pose as the owners of other peoples’ vehicles, claiming they lost their valet ticket but are back to retrieve the car, then drive away in it when the valet swallows the tale.

Gated communities, for instance, “get robbed all the time,” Gould says, explaining that a thief can sometimes just ride a bike around the gate, undeterred.

F&I managers shouldn’t discount the value of vehicle-security products, he says, pointing out a tendency he’s seen for them to focus primarily on service contract sales. Ancillary products like them are “an alternative way to make money in a dealership … Determine what’s relevant in the customer’s head.”

He points out that many dealerships include the inexpensive vehicle-tracing markings on the models they sell, so an F&I manager can point that out and encourage customers to complete the security net by adding other, more effective products – the layered approach – “just in case,” because markings don’t prevent theft of vehicles or their contents. In fact, sometimes alarms don’t even sound when a thief smashes a vehicle window, he says.

Dealers should take care, though, to independently research the after-market devices they sell to consumers to make sure they don’t unwittingly make their vehicles more vulnerable to theft, says Amico, whose company also helps protect consumer data that cars collect by removing electronic keys to mobile applications for a number of models.

But of course, nothing is foolproof. Just ask Burke, the retired detective, who’s worked vehicle theft cases that have taken years to solve, though he says most such crimes aren’t prosecuted, since they’re typically nonviolent.

“You can spend thousands of dollars, but if they really want your car, they’re going to take it. If they get caught, they’re going to laugh, because they’re going to go back out and do it again.”