NEW YORK (TheStreet) — An insurance-industry analysis of some 2 million U.S. auto thefts has made a key finding: Don't leave the keys in your car.
That seems pretty obvious, but the National Insurance Crime Bureau found that nearly 127,000 thefts reported between 2012 and 2014 involved keys either left in vehicles or otherwise obtained by thieves.
"Am I shocked by these numbers? Not one bit — in fact, I'm sure the numbers are probably higher," NICB President Joe Wehrle says. "Many times, [leaving keys in cars] is not admitted to in the police report or insurance claim."
The NICB, a nonprofit that does research for the industry, scoured three years of theft records and found that 126,603 cases involved someone using a vehicle owner's key to swipe the person's car.
While some incidents probably involved, say, thieves swiping keys from purses, the NICB believes most stemmed from drivers failing to take keys with them after parking cars.
"Stealing a vehicle is very difficult with today's anti-theft technology, [but] leaving the keys in the vehicle is an open invitation for the opportunistic car thief," Wehrle says.
All told, the NICB found that thefts involving drivers' keys occur every 12 minutes on average and account for 6.1% of all U.S. car thefts. In fact, the group says that if 2014's 44,828 cases hadn't happened, America's total auto thefts would have dropped to 1966 levels.
Perhaps most alarmingly, the NICB discovered that the number of vehicles stolen using drivers' keys rose during each of the past three years, even as overall car thefts fell.
Jeffrey Spring of AAA Southern California, which serves a region the study found has lots of vehicles swiped using owners' keys, says such thefts "are disappointing, but not surprising. We try to educate our members about how to avoid getting their cars stolen, and the No. 1 message is: 'Don't leave your keys in the car.'"
The NICB suspects that many victims leave their car keys in the ignition while popping into a store, spending an evening on the town or warming up a vehicle on a cold morning.
In fact, the group found that the top 10 days of 2012-14 when such thefts occurred all took place in the chilly Nov. 22-Jan. 1 period. Four dates fell right around New Year's Eve, while three occurred in the hectic days just before Thanksgiving.
Experts recommend avoiding problems by:
- Using keyless start-up systems. Some newer cars allow you to push a button on your key fob to start the engine and let the vehicle warm up while keeping the doors locked.
- Stowing keys as part of your "routine." Most drivers have a routine when it comes to parking — say, putting a car in "park," setting the parking brake and shutting off the engine. Jeffrey Spring of AAA recommends adding an extra step to that rundown: always putting your keys in your pocket or purse.
- Keeping valuables out of sight. It's bad enough if you forget to take your car keys with you, but leaving valuables in plain sight could attract the attention of thieves who might have otherwise walked by.
Perhaps the only good news the NICB found is that police recover 91% of cars that were stolen using operators' keys.
That's far better than the 54.8% average recovery rate for all auto thefts, but NICB spokesman Frank Scafidi says the study didn't look at what condition the vehicles were found in.
"If a car is recovered with minimal damage, that's usually a sign that someone just took it to get from Point A to Point B and maybe couldn't figure out a bus schedule," he says. "But other times, your car is stolen and 'chopped' and all that's recovered 40 minutes later is a chassis sitting on four milk crates."