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If they want it, they’ll take it: Tech isn’t winning its fight against car thieves

After years of decline, car theft is up in the United States, despite automaker security technology advances. Car thieves are relentless: If they want your car they’re going to get it. What are carmakers doing about it — and can tech help?

Professional car theft rings account for the greatest number of stolen vehicles, typically packing them in container ships bound for overseas destinations where they’ll sell for much more than in the U.S. your stolen car may keep traveling, even if you’re no longer enjoying it.

According to the FBI’s 2015 Uniform Crime Report (UCR), vehicle theft increased 3.1 percent in 2015 over 2014. The 2015 Hot Spots Vehicle Theft Report from the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) shows the metropolitan statistical areas with the highest vehicle theft rates; check your city and you’ll see that theft is probably ticking up.

The UCR tallied 707,758 vehicle thefts in 2015. The average dollar loss is also increasing. According to the FBI, a motor vehicle is stolen every 44.6 seconds in the U.S.

Every 6.5 minutes a vehicle is stolen because the owner left the key inside.

Lojack, the company that makes the eponymous Lojack Stolen Vehicle Recovery System, created an infographic that summarizes the FBI’s 2015 stolen vehicle stats. The graphic also shows the FBI’s top 20 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) with the highest total auto theft numbers and the NICB’s top 10 theft rate MSAs.

But is there more to the story than just statistics? And what about tech? Aren’t automakers’ advanced security tech making a difference?

To address these questions we spoke with three experts. We spoke separately in phone interviews with Patrick Clancy, VP of Law Enforcement at LoJack Corp.; Ivan Blackman, Manager of Vehicle Identification at NICB; and Chris McDonold, Executive Director of the Maryland Department of State Police Vehicle Theft Prevention Council and Chair of the International Association of Chiefs of Police Vehicle Crimes Committee.

Not all car thefts are counted

Our experts said the FBI UCR statistics aren’t all-inclusive. In some cases stolen cars are involved in other crimes and aren’t counted. For example, the increasingly common motor vehicle fraud is recorded as fraud, not car theft. Car jackings are recorded as assault. Burglaries and home invasions where cars are also stolen don’t make the list either, but show up in burglary stats.

McDonold emphasized the growing incidence of cars stolen during burglaries. As it gets harder for thieves to break into cars and just drive them away, the Police Chiefs’ organization hears about home burglaries in which thieves take any car keys they find along with other items. You might think they were after your electronics, which they also took, but they really wanted your car.

Clancy told Digital Trends, “Methods are evolving, methods are changing. There are more and more residential burglaries where they’re taking keys to cars, and then either take the car then or they’ll come back later and take the car.” If you were away from home with your car, and thieves took a spare key hanging on a hook in the back hall, you might not even realize it was taken — until your car is stolen the next night.

Because reporting crimes to the FBI isn’t mandatory, Blackman said, it’s impossible to know the total number of stolen cars. He also said the greatest source of uncounted stolen cars involve financial fraud.

If they want your car, they’ll take it

“There’s no more reaching under the steering wheel and touching wires to start the car,” according to Clancy. “Now they need a key or a way to work on the car.”

“Manufacturers made cars harder to steal, as law enforcement wanted. Now you see mostly professional thieves,” according to McDonold.

Amateur thieves are often foiled, but professional groups are responsible for the majority of thefts. Organized car theft rings are after the money they get from selling the cars, usually in other countries, and they will adapt new ways to steal cars.

More: BMW smart car becomes a temporary holding cell for thief who allegedly stole it

McDonold told Digital Trends that, in general, new car security is good for three to five years before thieves figure out how to defeat it. Until defeat mechanisms are available, thieves resort to other ways to get control of vehicles than directly attacking in-car security systems.

Note on a chained up Mercedes: “When we want it, we’ll come back and get it.”

For example, when stealing higher end cars, if thieves get access to a car, wherever that might happen legitimately, they look for valet keys that can unlock, start, and drive cars away. Owners often store valet keys in glove boxes or consoles and they’re unlikely to be missed. Clancy also mentioned a run on Land Rovers in the midwest, where an organized group of thieves disconnected the high-end SUV’s drive train in the driveway at night, pulled the vehicle onto a flatbed, and took it away.

Clancy told a story of a woman in the South who was determined to prevent thieves from taking her new Mercedes-Benz, which she parked in front of her condo. She bought a heavy chain and padlock. Each night she attached the chain to the front of the car and locked it. One morning she awoke to find her car turned around, with the chain and padlock intact and attached to the rear of the car. She found a note on the windshield that read, “When we want it, we’ll come back and get it.”

How thieves use tech to steal cars

Stealing codes to shut off alarms and open doors is a common car theft technique. Some cars are stolen directly from dealer lots, but more often from residences.

For example, there are electronic devices that can intercept key codes when used by car owners. A thief could spot a car he wants parked on the street, put a GPS locator device under a fender, wait for the owner to return, and then capture the code when the owner unlocks the car. The thief just waits till the car is parked again, and uses a spoofed key he made while waiting to unlock and drive the car away.

Key blanks are readily available for sale online and from key-making vending machines. Once a thief has a key code, making a new key is easy, either from a vending machine or in some cases inside the unlocked vehicle. Blackman said the easiest way to get the keycode in many cases is to look at the door lock mechanism, because the majority of manufacturers print the key code there. He also said that it takes just 20 seconds to program a key fob plugged into the vehicle’s On Board Diagnostic System (OBDS).

Keyless start systems are a particular concern, especially because many owners leave the fobs or transponders in the car, a convenience owners and for thieves alike. Sometimes, however, thieves don’t want the car, they just want what’s inside, including electronic devices for resale and personal information for identity theft.

Blackman also mentioned rental car theft. Thieves will rent a high end car for a day or two and then return it, leaving behind a concealed tracking device. While they have the car they use a key blank to make a copy of the original. A few days after returning the car, they track the car’s location, and drive it away with the copied key.

Organized car theft groups

Most car theft in the U.S. is by pros working in groups. Sometimes they steal popular cars or trucks for parts, but most often the groups can make much more money shipping the vehicles overseas via container ships.

More: A thief can hack a car security system in minutes with a laptop

Clancy told Digital Trends that people are still stealing cars such as 1994 Toyota Camrys and 1996 Honda Accords, often for their parts. The types of vehicles stolen can also vary by region. In Texas, for example, the Ford F-150 is the most commonly stolen vehicle. Occasionally they see a run on Ford Superduty F250 and F350s, which Blackman suspects are being sent overseas. NICB investigates organized groups and rings internationally. “Now groups have tools and knowledge to steal a specific type of vehicle. They’re organized and specialized,” Blackman told Digital Trends.

Container ships

The reason for both the rise in numbers of cars stolen and the average costs, all three experts agreed, is the demand for high end cars overseas. Many groups steal and send cars overseas via container ships, usually either re-plating vehicles with stolen license plates or re-vending them, which involves changing all the identifying numbers on the vehicles.

“There’s more concern about dangers of what’s coming in on container ships than what’s going out,” according to Blackman. So even though container sniffer technologies and container weighing can detect some containers that carry stolen cars, only a very small percent are checked.

Often the containers will be labeled as carrying household goods to pay lower import fees at the destination, as well as avoiding detection. Clancy said one group would put two cars in a container and then fill the rest of the space with bags of dog food.

Clancy also told Digital Trends of a recent bust involving a LoJack device in a stolen car. When law enforcement found the car, it was one of forty high end cars packed in containers, all in a lot near a container broker waiting to be shipped to Hong Kong. McDonold said it typically takes three weeks to process a car to be shipped by container. and that interval is the best chance for a recovery. If the car is shipped out, chances of recovery are minimal.

Car fraud

All three experts agreed that financial fraud involving vehicles, again often perpetrated by organized gangs, is a huge and growing factor in car theft, although it’s usually reported as fraud. Thieves will go to a dealership with stolen IDs and sometimes buy two or three high end cars or SUVs at once, not haggling price at all.

Most car theft in the U.S. is by pros working in groups.

The thieves use stolen identities to finance the vehicles, and when they leave immediately drive them to a port city to prepare for shipment out of the country. It can take finance companies up to 45 days to realize they have bad loans, and by that time the vehicles have likely already been resold on another continent. The finance companies first go after the victims of identity theft, but it doesn’t take long for all involved to realize what happened.

McDonald said increasing online vehicle sales and leasing are also subject to financial fraud by car theft gangs.

Another type of vehicle-related financial fraud is “owner give-ups.” Whether because a car needs costly repairs, gas prices have gone way up, job loss, or other financial difficulty, owners ditch or hide a car somewhere and claim it was stolen to collect the insurance payout and stop making payments. Often cars that were really abandoned by owners are found burned or buried. If a used car is found burned that hasn’t been stripped for parts, Blackman said that’s usually a good sign it was an owner give-up.

How to protect your vehicle

When we asked about the best way to protect vehicles from theft, McDonald said, “The only sure way is to put your vehicle inside a brick building with no windows or doors.” Otherwise, they’re fair game.

He also spoke about human error, saying they still see a lot of folks leaving keys in cars. McDonald said one of eight car thefts is a “freebie” because keys or fobs were left inside. He also reported that thefts with keys are up 31 percent since 2013. So McDonold’s best advice is the same you’ve heard before but still matters. Lock your car and take your keys.

More: LoJack reveals the high-tech tricks thieves use to steal connected cars

Blackman’s NICB promotes a four-layered approach to protecting your car from theft: Common sense, warning devices, immobilizing devices, and tracking devices.

Use common sense and park in well-lit spots, close all doors and windows securely, take your keys, and lock the car. Warning devices include audible alarms, steering column collars, and combo steering wheel/brake pedal locks.

Immobilizing devices such as smart keys, fuse cut-offs, kill switches, and starter, ignition, or fuel disablers all increase the likelihood thieves will move on to the next car. Finally, tracking devices such as Lojack that combine GPS and wireless technologies to allow remote vehicle monitoring can often help law enforcement find your vehicle quickly after the theft is reported.

Lojack’s Clancy said they are working with many dealerships to install Lojack systems in every vehicle on the lot. Doing so not only helps prevent dealer lot theft, but also gives the eventual owners protection.

The take-away about car theft? If thieves really want your car, they’ll take it. You can, however, take steps to lessen your vulnerability, starting with locking your car and keeping your keys and fobs with you.