Number of the Day

Car Thefts Are Surging — for a Very Dumb Reason

Thieves don’t need to break windows or hot-wire cars if they can just hop in and drive away

Photo illustration, source: dx Stub/Unsplash

13%: That’s the reported increase in car thefts from June to December 2020 over the same period in 2019, according to National Insurance Crime Bureau data cited by the New York Times. While pandemic downturn and tech-savvy workarounds to keyless ignitions have played some role in the trend, the Times reports that the major culprit is something else entirely: car owners simply leaving key fobs in their vehicles, sometimes in plain sight.

The uptick throws into reverse a trend dating back decades, and overall car thefts are still down more than 50% since their 1991 peak. As keyless ignitions caught on, would-be thieves needed key fobs to activate modern engines, making hot-wiring a useless strategy. And unlike the schemes behind old-school car theft — organized efforts to strip cars for parts sold through criminal syndicates — the new outbreak seems more blandly opportunistic. Often, the Times says, today’s thefts involve joyriding teenagers, or even people helping themselves to a vehicle to avoid taking mass transit for some routine journey.

But the driving force here seems to be owner carelessness — often partly inspired by the sense of security that anti-theft technology created. “People have let their guards down with their vehicles,” the head of the National Insurance Crime Bureau told the Times. Indeed, of the 6,858 vehicles stolen last year in New York City (up from 3,988 in 2019), 3,450 had been left running when they were swiped.

Perhaps there’s something charming about how trusting car-owners have become. Or perhaps there’s another way to explain the trend. “This,” one police chief commented, “is a very stupid problem to have.”

Lock up and pocket your fob, people; this is not Mayberry.

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