Vehicle theft is down by more than 50 percent compared to 1991, despite an increase in population and registrations of over 60 million, according to national analysis released this week from the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), a non-profit focused on preventing, detecting and defeating insurance fraud and vehicle theft through data analytics, investigations, training, legislative advocacy and public awareness. The drop—aided in part by better investigation from law enforcement and insurers, and new technologies—means vehicle owners are far less likely to have their cars stolen today than at any time in the last 44 years.

In 2013, 699,594 vehicles were reported stolen last year—a 58 percent reduction from 1991 when vehicle theft reached an all-time high of 1,661,738, the NICB said, citing crime statistics released by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.

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The decrease in stolen cars is in contrast to the increase in the number of vehicles registered in the United States. Over the years, the traditional single-vehicle family became the exception as it gave way to families with multiple vehicles, according to the NICB study, which compares annual statistics for thefts, population and vehicle registrations from 1960 through 2013.

In 1960, there were 74,159,209 vehicles registered across the country (U.S. population was 180,671,158), and registrations as a percentage of the population was 41 percent. That year, in 1960, there were only 328,200 vehicle thefts. About 30 years later, in 1991, there were 1,661,738 vehicle thefts and the theft rate was 659.01 per 100,000 population. In 2013, despite an increase in population and registrations of over 60 million, thefts were down to 699,594 with a theft rate of 221.3—a decrease of 437.71, the NICB said.

From their peak year in 1991, vehicle thefts have trended downward. From 1991 through 2000, there was a 30 percent decline. From 2000 through 2003, thefts rose a little before falling precipitously and

consecutively each year from 2004 through 2011—43 percent in eight years, the NICB reported.

Analysis of these statistics reveals that care owners’ chances of having their autos stolen today are statistically and significantly less than at any other time since 1960, according to the NICB. Also, a recent poll by the Gallup organization found that 56 percent of Americans rarely or never worry about their cars being stolen.

Over the years, auto theft was so pervasive in many areas that local law enforcement agencies created specialized auto theft investigative units to deal with the problem, the NICB said. Prevention, however, has always been challenging. And like any crime, once it occurs, the focus for law enforcement shifts from prevention to resolution. With auto theft, typically that meant recovering the vehicle, and the best outcome was the “Triple Play”—recovering the vehicle, arresting the thief and getting him convicted, according to the NICB.

The rise in vehicle thefts led to the creation of many auto theft prevention authorities (ATPAs), which are statewide entities comprised of seasoned investigators and funded, in most cases, by surcharges on auto insurance policies. Today, there are 14 ATPAs in existence.

In addition, innovative investigative techniques have been developed that have since been shared across law enforcement communities, and with associations of public and private organizations like the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators (IAATI) and the International Association of Special Investigation Units (IASIU), the NICB said.

The insurance industry-supported National Automobile Theft Bureau, predecessor to NICB, was home of the most experienced auto theft investigators dating back to 1912. NATB/NICB has trained thousands of local, state and federal law enforcement officers and today has special agents working alongside their law enforcement counterparts in most major cities across the country.

Technology that delivers anti-theft protection also has had an immeasurable positive effect on vehicle theft, whether engineered into design and deployed in the auto manufacturing process or obtained as an after-market option by vehicle owners looking for an additional level of security. Put simply, cars are just more difficult to steal today than ever before and technology has made that possible, the NICB said. Technology is also benefitting law enforcement agencies, which are using everything from remote surveillance cameras to automated license plate readers to “bait cars.”

Even with all the good news about the decline in vehicle theft, no vehicle is theft-proof, according to the NICB. While opportunities for hot-wiring a car and stealing it is greatly diminished, thanks to transponders or “smart keys,” thieves are developing new ways to illegally gain access to vehicles.

For example, thieves are acquiring keys illegally through outright theft or by posing as legitimate vehicle owners seeking a replacement from a dealership or locksmith. To help combat this, the NICB said it has worked with the National Automotive Service Task Force (NASTF) to create a data exchange system that allows locksmiths and dealerships to access key codes and immobilizer reset information provided by automobile manufacturers. Before a dealer or locksmith makes a duplicate key for a customer, the customer must provide a vehicle’s registration or title information showing that the customer is, in fact, the owner of the vehicle. NICB maintains a log of all NASTF transactions and NICB analysts examine the data looking for potential signs of fraud, as well as organized group activity resulting in numerous investigations.

Thieves also are gaining illegal access to cars by not returning rental vehicles. NICB said it has investigated cases where a rental vehicle was returned only one good key in the ignition, and a blank key along with it. The thieves then return to the rental lot later with the other good key and simply drive off with the car. Or, they will place a GPS tracker in the car and when it is re-rented, follow it to a destination and then steal it once it is parked.

Thieves use stolen identities or create fraudulent new ones with phony credit histories to secure loans for high-end vehicles. The vehicles are then shipped to a foreign seaport where they can be sold at a premium, according to the NICB. Thieves also use VIN switching by using a “clean” vehicle identification number (VIN) of an identical make and model in order to disguise their true identity and allow for resale to an unsuspecting consumer. Such disguises are known as VIN cloning, switching, or counterfeiting, depending on the specific techniques employed.

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