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Your Wheels

Savy Angelenos Help Drive Down Car Thefts

April 08, 1999|JEANNE WRIGHT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Los Angeles has dropped off the top 10 list of cities plagued with the nation's highest rates of auto theft, as ranked by an annual study conducted by the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

Nearly 80,000 of the 1.4 million vehicles stolen nationwide in 1997--the most recent year for which statistics are available--were swiped from drivers in Los Angeles and Long Beach, according to the FBI. That's down from more than 102,000 car thefts reported here in 1995 and 113,027 in 1994.

Though Angelenos have apparently become more savvy in combating the crime, they shouldn't get too complacent, the nonprofit group of insurers warns.

The Los Angeles area still ranks No. 18 in the U.S. in auto thefts, with one out of 73 vehicles stolen in 1997. Hardly reassuring, especially if your wheels are among those most commonly stolen. And nationwide, vehicle theft remains the No. 1 property crime, costing more than $7 billion each year, said Kenneth Adams, spokesman for the Western Insurance Information Service in Los Angeles.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau began ranking the country's auto theft hot spots in 1994, and Los Angeles made the top 10 list for the first three years.

But the number of thefts has been declining here as well as nationally.

The recently released NICB study analyzed vehicle theft rates in metropolitan areas in the U.S. in 1997 using data from the FBI, departments of motor vehicles, state police departments and registered-vehicle rolls.

Of the 1.4 million vehicles stolen nationwide in 1997, 32% were never recovered, the bureau found.

Miami had the highest rate of vehicle theft, with one car out of 38 stolen. Two California cities did make the top 10 list--Fresno came in third, Sacramento ninth.

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Why the drop in the Los Angeles area? The California Highway Patrol and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department attribute the decrease to stepped-up enforcement through a special statewide task force started in 1993. By focusing on arresting and prosecuting professional auto thieves, Los Angeles County has seen about a 44% decline in reported thefts since 1994, says Sheriff's Lt. John O'Brien.

In L.A. County alone, $100 million in stolen cars and parts has been recovered since 1994 through efforts by the state-funded Task Force for Auto Theft Prevention, which includes officers from the Sheriff's Department, city police and the CHP, O'Brien says.

But the increased use of anti-theft devices as well as drivers using common sense also play important roles in the decrease, Adams says.

"What we're seeing more of is a layering effect," he said. "People use more than one method to protect their vehicles.

"We see people using more than one alarm or device on their vehicle. Even if an auto thief gets past one device, they may not be able to get through another one."

Car thieves are usually working under a tight time limit, and the longer it takes them to circumvent anti-theft devices, the lower the chances they will succeed in stealing your vehicle, Adams says.

Anti-theft devices range from basic car alarms, Club-type devices and Tasers to expensive high-tech systems that shut down the engine or allow your stolen vehicle to be tracked by satellite.

Although technology can't always deter sophisticated car thieves, CHP Sgt. Bill Siegl says, it's better to have a device on a vehicle, because given the choice of a car equipped with an anti-theft device and one that isn't, the thief will go for the one that is unprotected.

Regardless, Siegl warns, if "a thief wants your car, they'll get it even if they have to tow it away."

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The NICB's data analysis determined that the most commonly stolen vehicles in the Los Angeles-Long Beach area in 1997 were Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Honda Civic and CRX, Toyota 4x2 pickups, Acura Integra, Toyota Corolla, Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme and Ciera, Ford Mustang, Toyota vans and Nissan Sentra.

It's important that car owners use common sense, police and insurers say. You'd be surprised how many people leave their car doors unlocked or their keys on the seat or in the visor, they say. Equipping your vehicle with expensive add-on items can also attract thieves. For example, sporting a set of chrome wheels worth $4,000 could catch the eye of a thief determined to make money selling parts, Adams says.

Indeed, most of the stolen vehicles that are not recovered end up being taken to "chop shops," where they are stripped for parts or illegally exported from the U.S., the NICB says.

To protect your vehicle, insurance groups offer these tips:

* Park in well-lit areas.

* Never leave keys in an unattended car.

* Use anti-theft devices.

* Never leave valuables or packages in view of passersby.

* Never leave personal identification in your car.

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Jeanne Wright cannot answer mail personally but will attempt to respond in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles, CA 90053. Via e-mail: highway1@latimes.com.

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