Every time you park your car, you’re taking a risk. Just ask David J. of Stanford, Conn., whose high-performance Acura Integra Type R was stolen right under his nose just one month after he installed a top-of-the-line security system for $1,500. “They found it three weeks later, stripped clean,” he added.
David’s experience is not unusual, says James Cooper, CEO of Ultimate Security Systems Corporation of Irvine, Calif. Despite manufacturers’ claims to the contrary, most security systems are easy to overpower and hardly even slow down a professional thief, said Cooper, whose firm created and markets the PowerLock anti-theft system.
The National Insurance Crime Bureau reports that 1.1 million vehicles are stolen nationwide each year. That’s one vehicle every 25 seconds in what has become a $7.5 billion-a-year-industry, according to the Insurance Information Institute, a trade organization. It’s an industry, moreover, dominated by organized auto-theft rings that steal cars to fill contract orders. And no wonder: A $20,000 stolen vehicle can be stripped and sold into $30,000 worth of parts, insurers say.
Your car doesn’t have to be a high-performance vehicle like David J’s to be an attractive target for a thief with a list of parts, or with orders for a particular make and model of a car. Different models of the popular Toyota Camry and Honda Accord swept eight of the top 10 list of cars reported stolen in 2000, according to an annual study conducted by CCC Information Services Inc., a Chicago-based supplier of software and communications systems to auto insurers. Chevrolet and Ford pickups captured the other two slots.
Brett Ploumen didn’t have a security system on his 1992 Chevrolet Astrovan. But he thought he was taking appropriate precautions by parking in well-lighted, high-traffic areas and locking his vehicle’s doors and windows.
Ploumen found out differently when he went to dinner with friends at a busy neighborhood strip mall in Santa Ana, Calif. “When we returned, the Astrovan wasn’t there. There was broken glass on the ground and another vehicle in the parking place,” Ploumen recalled.
“Three days later they found it, wrapped in a tarp on a side street,” he said. The entire front end of the car was gone – it had essentially been turned into a trailer, and a beat-up trailer at that. When he saw it, “I was sick to my stomach instantly,” Ploumen said.
Cooper describes some of the most popular auto security devices, and the drawbacks that allow thieves to get around them:
1. Bar or wheel locks: Steering wheel bars lock up the steering wheel; wheel locks prevent the theft of wheels and tires.
How to get around them: All it takes is a pair of bolt cutters or a hacksaw. “They saw through the steering wheel, slide off the bar lock and hot-wire the car. It takes anywhere from 15-30 seconds,” Cooper said.
2. Audible alarms: Known in the industry as “nuisance alarms,” these alerts are intended to scare thieves away.
How to get around them: Audible alarms are almost universally ignored. Additionally, a professional thief can cut a wire and silence the alarm in seconds.
3. Pedal locks: This device locks the brakes.
How to get around them: They can be bridged or cut in 15-60 seconds.
4. Electronic immobilizing devices: These devices are designed to disconnect all power from the starter, preventing thieves from bypassing the ignition and hot-wiring the vehicle. They can be installed at the factory or purchased as an aftermarket item.
How to get around them: Seasoned thieves dismantle these systems or wire around them in seconds, usually by cutting two wires. Additionally, thieves easily find override or valet switches used by owners to disarm the systems.
5. Tracking systems: These devices transmit a radio signal to locate the car.
How to get around them: Tracking devices can be removed at a chop shop before a theft is reported. Or the car can be stripped and dumped before the owner finds out it’s been stolen.
6. Solenoid immobilizer systems: Although categorized as an immobilizer, this kind of system is based on a different principle than most electronic security systems. PowerLock is one example. It attaches permanently to the vehicle’s starter motor, where it effectively prevents hot-wiring. Once installed, such a system is impossible to remove, bypass or disable.
How to get around them: It can’t be hot-wired, says Cooper. “A system like this is virtually impossible to circumvent,” he says. The only way to steal a car protected by such a system is to tow it away.
Cooper also warns consumers to be aware of the capacity of their security system. “A lot of so-called security systems consist of remote entry and flashing lights. A lot of people think of that as automobile security, and it really isn’t: It’s a convenience feature. Some manufacturers are beginning to recognize that, and label it as ‘personal security.'”
After his nightmare experience, Ploumen is an evangelist for adding a security system to your car. “Look into some kind of aftermarket security system,” he advises consumers. “Find something you feel comfortable with – and that’s proven.”
Ploumen has researched the security field thoroughly since his van was stolen. He briefly considered a brake lock, but decided it wasn’t practical. He chose Ultimate Security Systems’ Powerlock after a friend told him about it.
David J. also purchased a Powerlock system after replacing his Acura Integra Type R. “I came across it on the Internet. It was not expensive, so I thought, ‘Why not give it a try?'” He added three additional layers of security with brake and pedal locks, plus a tracking system.
David became a would-be victim again a few months later. This time, though, his story has a happy ending. The thieves pried the door open with a “Slim Jim,” bent the clutch pedal sideways to circumvent the AutoLock, then broke the ignition switch in an attempt to hot wire the car. When PowerLock circumvented that effort, they tried rolling the car down a nearby hill to pop the clutch. That didn’t work, either, so they abandoned the car. The tracking system helped authorities recover the car a short time later. For more information, visit powerlock.com.