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Car Break-ins Can Cost You

Car theft is on the decline — but that doesn't mean your vehicle is any safer. While thieves might not want the car itself, they're very interested in what’s inside, warns Frank Scafidi, public affairs director for the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

"People are getting smarter about protecting their cars and locking them," says Scafidi. But your vehicle remains a target because its contents — whatever they might be — have value to someone who sees them and wants them without regard for you, your property or the law.

"There's always going to be some crook who wants something you have and doesn't want to pay for it. That's why keeping your car locked with your stuff out of sight is so important," says Scafidi.

Here are five reasons your car might be a target.

1. More thieves are taking car parts or contents.

What they do: According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, 2010 marked the seventh consecutive year that auto thefts decreased. This is likely due, at least in part, to high-tech theft-detection systems and tracking services that can quickly locate — and even disable — a stolen car. But thieves adapt. "Rather than taking the whole car, crooks are often just sticking with the good old smash-and-grab crimes of opportunity and making off with items they can take quickly and carry easily," says Scafidi.

What you can do: Invest in an alarm system and anti-theft devices, such as a steel-bar steering-wheel lock. Bonus: You may qualify for insurance discounts by using such products.

2. Thieves have high-tech help.

What they do: While technology may deter a thief from driving away in your vehicle, it could help him gain entry to it. Keyless entry code systems, for example, can be manipulated by using a decryption program on a laptop, says Stephen Spivey, author of "Your Self-Defense Survival Guide." And, of course, would-be thieves can go on the Internet and find a wealth of information — not to mention instructional videos — on how to quickly break into any type of vehicle.

What you can do: Don't display labels that identify your security system. This makes it easier for thieves to figure out how to get around it. Also, thieves will often start by disabling the car battery, so make sure your alarm is connected to a different (ideally, hidden) battery. Or invest in a hood lock mechanism.

3. Cars contain expensive — and easy to sell — items.

What they do: Not surprisingly, electronics are popular with thieves. "The most commonly stolen items from vehicles are GPS units, iPhones®, iPods, MP3 devices and laptop computers," says Jesse Mata, USAA claims service director.

Another hot item: air bags. The Insurance Information Institute estimates more than 75,000 air bags are stolen every year. A trend that the National Insurance Crime Bureau began noticing around mid-2008 is the theft of catalytic converters, which can be sold as scrap metal.

"Air bags and catalytic converters are very costly when purchased legitimately," says Scafidi. "So once again, the ability to obtain something for free and then sell it for pure profit is attractive to some folks."

Expensive auto parts aren't typically stolen as an afterthought to some other theft. A person stealing air bags or catalytic converters is usually focused on those parts. "They are more specialized than the theft committed by the person who breaks a window to grab the iPod sitting in a cup holder," says Scafidi.

What you can do: Never leave a GPS or other electronic device on the seats, dashboard or other visible areas. Lock them in the trunk or glove compartment. Same thing goes for shopping bags and packages.

While there is little you can do to protect your car from theft of auto parts, such as air bags and catalytic converters, Scafidi recommends always parking your car in a well-lit area and never leaving it overnight in an area that is not secure.

4. Crooks are getting more resourceful.

What they do: Ivan Blackman, also with the National Insurance Crime Bureau, cites this example: Thieves have started using small pieces of ceramic (or a ceramic spark plug) to break car windows with a minimum of noise. Also, Blackman says, several makes of new vehicles have plastic trim surrounding the door handle and lock mechanism. A thief can easily pull this away from the door with a screwdriver, making it easy to unlock the door.

What you can do: Don't leave anything valuable in your car. If thieves don't see anything to steal, they may think breaking in isn't worth the bother.

5. You've become complacent.

What they do: Thieves take advantage of our laxness. "We've seen a number of claims recently where the vehicle is left unlocked, creating an even greater likelihood of a car break-in and theft," says Mata.

A survey by the National Insurance Crime Bureau found that 40 percent of respondents don't hide the valuables they leave in their car — and 47 percent said they don't always park in well-lit areas.

What you can do: To lessen your risk, park in a well-lit, populated area and always lock your vehicle. Don't assume crime only happens in commercial or urban areas — FBI statistics show more than a third of all vehicle thefts happen at or near a residence. And never hide a spare key on or near the car; thieves know all the hiding spots.

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