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What to do if your car is stolen and how to prevent that from happening

Vehicle Etching.JPG
Special agent Peter Lazear etches a car's VIN onto a window to help prevent theft.

Car theft has long been popular in Hollywood, with thrilling scenes of vehicles crashing through barricades, flying over water and -- against all odds -- landing rubber side down to speed away.

In real life, of course, car theft is far less glamorous. Marc Hinch is an expert on vehicle theft and founder of the website Stolen911.

Marc Hinch
Marc Hinch
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Private investigator Marc Hinch served 21 years with the California Highway patrol investigating vehicle thefts.

“When you steal that 90’s Honda that’s only worth $1,000, you may have just stolen it from a single mother or a student just trying to get back and forth to college," he explains. "On my website I get a lot of landscapers. They get their trailers stolen with all their mowing equipment in the back. Their business is just shut down.”

Here in Virginia, about 11,000 cars were taken in 2020 – the most recent year on record. In previous years so many vehicles went missing that the state created a program called Help Eliminate Auto Theft or HEAT.

“This program was created in 1992 by an act of the General Assembly, because auto thefts were rampant across the Commonwealth, and so a very small portion of all of our auto insurance premium actually goes into the HEAT Fund," says Special Agent Peter Lazear.

HEAT cut thefts by about 60%, in part through public education, but Lazear warns the public not to be complacent. The most recent data from state police shows 11,000 cars were stolen in 2020, and most were not fancy, expensive rides.

"It’s that attitude of, ‘No one would want my car, or my car is too old or too ugly,’" he says. "We try to explain that sometimes it’s just teenagers who are looking for a ride to school. It’s cold, and they don’t want to walk. They see a car running, and they’ll steal it.

In fact, Hinch adds, older cars are especially attractive targets for unskilled thieves.

“They don’t have the chip technology that a lot of the newer cars have.”

Nor should you assume you’re safe once you’ve pulled into a driveway, building or lot.

“Parking garages at apartment complexes are notorious. Parking lots obviously. Driveways – I have really high end Camaros that are stolen right out of people’s driveways.”

Lazear explains that thieves may take pick-up trucks, vans or U-hauls for their contents, or they might steal a vehicle for parts. Catalytic converters are especially popular.

To keep that part, which contains precious metals, and to prevent car thefts in general Hinch recommends installing a GPS tracking device.

“I have it set up so that as soon as that car starts moving, I get alerted. Hey, your car is moving! And I can track it in real time.”

He also likes Apple AirTags – discs a little bigger than a quarter – that can be hidden in a vehicle. When owners open the AirTag app, any iPhone nearby will automatically alert them to the car’s location. Lazear offers another low-cost option: etching your vehicles identification number on every window.

“ If a thief steals a vehicle, a lot of times what they want to do is replace the vehicle identification number and create what is called a cloned vehicle, so they take your car, and they basically give it a different identity, so if all of the glass is also VIN-etched, that’s very expensive to replace.”

If your car is stolen, report it to police. Some communities now deploy license plate readers and can watch for your missing ride. Be aware, however, that thieves sometimes replace license plates.

To find a stolen vehicle, experts also suggests checking security cameras in the neighborhood, using social media to get the word out, and maybe hiring a private investigator, since police could be occupied with more serious crimes.

The good news, Hinch says, is that newer cars have more security features, so the rate of vehicle theft is likely to go down in the years to come.

“You’re going to see a dramatic drop in auto theft, because around the mid-2000’s, cars just become harder to steal. They’re still going to happen. Brand new cars are stolen all the time, but it’s not as easy as it is to steal those older ones.”

And, in the mean time, Lazear notes that about 65% of cars that are stolen here in Virginia will, eventually, be recovered.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Sandy Hausman joined our news team in 2008 after honing her radio skills in Chicago. Since then, she's won several national awards for her reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Radio, Television and Digital News Association and the Public Radio News Directors' Association.