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Technology making car theft obsolete

Mass., once the car theft capital, sees cases fall 90%, thanks in large part to high-tech deterrents

Here’s one way to recognize a stolen car: It’s probably pretty old. Thanks to a surge of advanced anti-theft technology, stealing newer cars is remarkably tough. That’s led to a dramatic decline in auto theft, in Massachusetts and throughout the United States.

"We've made major strides, and technology, I think is probably the key player in this," said Roger Morris, a spokesman for the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), an insurance industry trade group.

According to the bureau's "Hot Wheels" list of the top 10 most stolen cars, in 2013 the nation's most victimized vehicle was the Honda Accord. But the great majority of the 53,000 stolen Accords were built in the 1990s.

You'll see similar numbers for the other cars on the list. Cars eight years or older dominated the rankings; very few recent vehicles made the cut.

Meanwhile, the overall rate of auto theft has plummeted.


"The volume of thefts is nothing like it used to be," said David Procopio, a spokesman for the Massachusetts State Police, which shut down its dedicated auto theft task force about two years ago. In 1975, the Commonwealth had the highest car theft rate in the nation, but since then it has fallen by about 90 percent. Nationwide, car theft peaked in 1991 and has dropped 65 percent since.

Much of the credit goes to aggressive policing, but even more important was
the development of cars that are far harder to steal. A horde of antitheft devices have become almost universal over the past decade. Most important was the immobilizer, a system that prevents a car from starting unless the driver uses a key that's recognized by the computer network built into virtually all modern vehicles.

"That's probably the biggest thing that's happened to theft rates," said Bill Biondo, a technical fellow in global vehicle security at General Motors Corp.

Born in the late 1980s, immobilizers first appeared in luxury cars, but by the early 21st century they were standard on nearly all vehicles.

"Gone are the old days of two and three decades ago when a car thief could jimmy into the vehicle, use a screwdriver to defeat the steering column, connect the ignition wires, and take the car," Procopio said.


Immobilizer technology has largely eliminated casual car theft. But the professionals are as busy as ever.

"Today, what you're dealing with is the organized criminal," said crime bureau spokesman Roger Morris. "They're not out there stealing for joyrides."

These serious thieves get around modern technology by using old-fashioned fraud. For instance, a criminal may test-drive a new car, but hand in a dummy key when he returns the vehicle. At night, he returns with the real key and drives the car off the lot.

Other crooks use stolen identities to "purchase" cars on credit. Of course, they never make any payments, but the vehicle won't be reported as stolen until the "owner" misses a payment or two, and that could take months. Meanwhile, the car has been stripped for parts or loaded into a shipping container for resale overseas.

While there are fewer car thefts, it's gotten harder to catch those who have stayed in the game.

The crime bureau estimates that fewer than half of stolen cars are ever recovered, compared to a 60 percent recovery rate back in the 1980s. So the search is on for better technology and tactics to keep criminals at bay.

The latest Chevy Tahoe SUV from General Motors Corp., for instance, features sensors that set off an alarm if someone tries to jack up the car or if a window is smashed. Even if someone can bypass these sensors, there's an internal motion detector that will ring the alarm if you climb behind the wheel.


And of course there's OnStar, the service that connects the car with GM's nationwide wireless network. If an OnStar-equipped vehicle is stolen, GM can limit the speed at which it can be driven, remotely lock the ignition so that it can't be started, and track the car's location.

Many car companies offer stolen-car location tracking these days, but the concept was pioneered byLoJack Corp., of Canton. In 1986, LoJack introduced a system that hides a small radio transmitter inside a car. If the vehicle is reported stolen, the local police department sends an activation code to the car's transmitter, which begins broadcasting a homing signal.

LoJack has partnerships with about 1,800 law enforcement agencies in 30 US states and the District of Columbia. The agencies use LoJack receivers installed in police cars to pick up the signals from stolen vehicles and track them down.

The company says it recovers 90 percent of LoJack-equipped stolen cars.

LoJack cars are unmarked; thieves never know they've stolen one until the cops show up.

"Let's get the police to recover the vehicle and hopefully arrest the thief," said Patrick Clancy, LoJack's vice president for law enforcement. "That's the covert nature of it."

The mere existence of LoJack has scared off many criminals. A 1998 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that car theft rates fell 50 percent in Boston, 35 percent in Newark, and nearly 20 percent in Los Angeles after the introduction of LoJack. Even though relatively few drivers installed LoJack, every car in town became less attractive to thieves, who couldn't be sure which vehicles had been LoJacked.


These days, LoJack is marketing its service directly to automobile dealers and rental agencies, to help them recover cars stolen by professional fraudsters.

"That's a huge problem going on right now," said Clancy — and a reminder that car theft will probably never go away.

"As long as there are thieves out there, they're looking for an easy path," said NICB's Morris. "Criminals are criminals." But thanks to antitheft tech, the good guys are winning.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.