NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- U.S. car thefts have tumbled to around 700,000 a year from more than 1.6 million in 1991, but here are five cities where you still better remember to lock your vehicle's doors.
"People shouldn't be inordinately worried about vehicle theft, but you can't be stupid, either," says Frank Scafidi of the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which recently released its 30th annual Hot Spots list of metro areas with the highest auto-theft rates.
The NICB, which compiles statistics for the insurance industry, generates its annual list by analyzing an FBI database that police around the country use to report stolen vehicles. Metro areas at the top of this year's list had the highest number of auto thefts relative to population during 2013.
California cities far and away lead the pack, accounting for all five communities at the head of the rundown and nine of the top 10. The state's Central Valley region, an area hard hit in recent years by foreclosures and high unemployment, does particularly "well" on the list.
Scafidi, who's based in Sacramento, says California has traditionally had a big problem with auto thefts -- partly because the Golden State has America's largest number of both cars and people.
California's good weather also means cars tend to last longer there, giving the state a larger share of older vehicles that lack today's antitheft devices, Scafidi says. Add a large drug problem and easy access to Mexico for thieves who want to export stolen vehicles south of the border and you've got all of the ingredients for car-crook heaven.
"We're seeing less than half of the number of auto thefts that we were 20 years ago, and that's a heck of an improvement -- unless you're one of the people whose car gets stolen," Scafidi says.
Read on to check out the communities the NICB found have America's highest per-capita vehicle-theft theft rate among the country's 380 major metropolitan areas.
All car-theft figures refer to 2013 FBI statistics for metropolitan areas as a whole, not just to incidents that occur within city limits. Jobless figures likewise refer to metro areas as a whole and reflect U.S. Labor Department non-seasonally-adjusted numbers for June, the most recent month with data available.
Per-capita property- and violent-crime statistics apply to just cities proper (not entire metro areas) and reflect a NeighborhoodScout.com analysis of 2012 FBI data, the latest year with final figures available.
Fifth-worst community for car thefts: Stockton/Lodi, Calif.
Be sure to take stock of your surroundings if you park in Stockton, as this struggling community some 80 miles northeast of San Francisco saw more than 4,000 auto thefts last year.
That's 633.61 stolen cars for every 100,000 Stockton/Lodi area residents -- little surprise given the hard times that the community is facing.
One of the cities hardest hit by the U.S. housing bust, Stockton saw its municipal government file for bankruptcy in 2008 after home values plummeted and foreclosures soared. That sent property-tax collections plunging and the local jobless rate as high as 18.7%, prompting lots of veteran police officers to find work elsewhere as the local government cut back.
The city has since hired some younger cops, but NeighborhoodScout recently ranked Stockton as America's 19th most dangerous community. Time magazine even dubbed the place "America's Most Miserable City" in an article that noted its reporter had her purse stolen while in town.
Fourth-worst community for car thefts: San Francisco/Oakland/Hayward, Calif.
You can leave your heart in San Francisco, just don't leave your keys in your car there.
That's because the Bay Area saw 29,326 car thefts in 2013, or 649.34 for every 100,000 residents.
Scafidi says that while San Francisco proper has a strong economy that usually translates into lower crime, other parts of the metro area aren't so lucky.
"You have to remember that the San Francisco metro area isn't just San Francisco, it's also places like Hayward and Oakland," he says. "And Oakland isn't exactly known as a quiet bedroom community."
Located across the San Francisco Bay from San Francisco proper, Oakland ranks No. 9 in NeighborhoodScout's list of America's most dangerous cities.
Third-worst community for car thefts: Modesto, Calif.
About the only good news for Modesto is that the community has dropped to No. 3 on the latest Hot Spots list from first place in last year's rankings (which reflected 2012 car-theft levels).
The NICB found that Modesto had 3,565 vehicles stolen last year, or 678.41 for every 100,000 residents.
Situated some 90 miles east of San Francisco, the community suffers from high crime and an 11.1% jobless rate. Modesto also has per-capita violent- and property-crime rates that run roughly twice the national average.
Second-worst community for car thefts: Fresno, Calif.
The Central Valley's largest community has one of America's highest car-theft rates.
Located some 190 miles southeast of San Francisco, Fresno had 6,750 vehicles stolen last year, or 706.91 for every 100,000 residents.
Like other Central Valley communities on the NICB list, Fresno has lots of unemployment and crime. The community has 10.4% joblessness, while its property-crime rate is 83% above the U.S. average and violent-crime levels are 41% higher than the norm.
Worst community for car thefts: Bakersfield, Calif.
It takes a lot more than a baker's dozen of stolen cars to top the NICB's Hot Spots list, but Bakersfield more than fits the bill.
The Central Valley community saw 6,267 vehicle thefts last year, which translates into 725.24 incidents for every 100,000 residents -- the highest rate for any U.S. metro area.
Bakersfield, which is some 110 miles northwest of Los Angeles, faces many of the same problems that other communities on the Hot Spots rundown suffer from.
Although its economy is slowly improving, joblessness remains at 10.2% after peaking at 17.9% in March 2010. At the same time, Bakersfield's property-crime rate is 75% above the U.S. average, while violent-crime levels are 39% above than what's usual for a city its size.