Earlier this week, Rob, my highly trustworthy mechanic, locked both sets of keys to the family Buick inside the car. No worries, he said, “I can get the door open, and it won’t take long.” And it didn’t. He got a bent wire, snaked it in through the top of the window, and popped the lock button in a few minutes of work. It was scary how ineffective the Buick’s “security” was but, as a thief, Rob was far too slow — experienced carjacks will have access in less than a minute.

Actually, according to the Department of Transportation, most of us make it easy for car thieves by leaving our keys in the car or the doors open. Nearly half of all car thefts happen that way. Be careful, car theft was up 1.3 percent in 2012 (from 2011), according to preliminary FBI figures. Nationally, a car is stolen every 44 seconds. Car theft costs the U.S. $4.3 billion annually. If a professional grabs your ride, it could end up in the Middle East, Eastern Europe or South America.

Speaking of the Middle East, look at this mind-blower from a few years back:

The FBI’s counterterrorism unit has launched a broad investigation of U.S.-based theft rings after discovering some vehicles used in deadly car bombings in Iraq, including attacks that killed U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians, were probably stolen in the United States, according to senior U.S. government officials.
I’ve had several cars stolen, and it’s a gut-wrenching experience when your automobile is reduced to an oil smudge and some nuggets of broken glass on the pavement. All my cars were recovered, but often were stripped of most useful parts. One theft was deterred by my neighbor who let the would-be thieves — college kids, from the looks of them — see his shotgun. They left their burglary tools — and some blood —o n the seat of the hot Pontiac Trans Am I had then.

signs on windshield of cars to deter car theft

This week the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) released its annual Hot Spots vehicle theft report, and it’s amazing how much California dominates the list. No less than eight of the 10 top spots are occupied by Golden State regions. Modesto is #1, followed by Fresno, Bakersfield, Stockton, San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Vallejo/Fairfield and Redding. Two Washington state locales, Yakima and Spokane, are also in the top 10. In the West, car theft jumped a whopping 10.6 percent last year (while the Midwest, South and Northeast saw reductions).

NICB provides a handy state-by-state map of car theft, and I looked up nearby Bridgeport, Conn. — where ALL of my cars were stolen. There were 1,518 thefts there last year, a rate of 162.56 per 100,000. I should feel lucky because other Connecticut cities, Hartford and New Haven, are worse.

California loses $1 billion because of car theft every single year. One possible reason is that the vehicles can be easily shipped for resale in Asia or the Middle East. But why mostly rural areas? Frank Scafidi, a spokesman for NICB, says it’s all pretty simple — California’s mild climate is more likely to keep cars in good condition, which means they’ll fetch top dollar from the organized rings when they’re slapped with a phony VIN number and resold abroad. “California has always had the most vehicle thefts and always will,” he said.  

Anti-theft system decal on car window

If you want to foil car thieves, don’t leave your keys in the car, park in a well-lit area, use a security system (including steering column collars, brake and wheel locks, VIN etching, theft-deterrent decals or micro dot marking).

One reason the bad guys didn’t get my Pontiac is that it was equipped with a cutoff if the ignition was tampered with. You can get that installed as an aftermarket thing, and you can also put in a simple kill switch (I like that option) or fuse cutoff. Smart keys do wonders, too. Finally, you can put in a tracking device that will easily locate your car if it is stolen. GPS and wireless tech to the rescue. (Don’t they do that kind of thing on cop shows?)

Here's what a car theft looks like on surveillance video, in this case South Africa — if you were wondering why he's breaking in on the right side:

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

Gone in 60 seconds: California is America's car theft capital
8 of the areas in the top 10 car theft list are in the Golden State. Nationally, stolen vehicles are on the rise. To protect yourself, read on.