Is your car a steal? Vehicle thefts are on the up

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Car crime is on the rise and the deepening cost-of-living crisis means there’s little chance of it easing off any time soon.

And it’s not just expensive cars being stolen — many humble family runarounds are targeted to be stripped down for spare parts.

The lockdowns provided relatively brief respite from vehicle crime, but it seems the numbers are now accelerating again.

Threat: Last year, 112,000 cars were reported as stolen in the UK, with a combined value of £260m. However, just one in 20 car thefts leads to charges

Threat: Last year, 112,000 cars were reported as stolen in the UK, with a combined value of £260m. However, just one in 20 car thefts leads to charges

Any means necessary

Criminals are using a combination of high-tech devices, sheer brute force, violence and intimidation — in the case of carjacking — to steal vehicles and their contents.

Worryingly, government figures appear to show that this type of crime does pay, with many police forces too stretched to catch the crooks. 

Last year, 112,000 cars were reported as stolen in the UK, with a combined value of £260 million, according to insurer Direct Line.

Home Office figures put the 2020-2021 number at just less than 100,000 in England and Wales.

However, according to these figures only one in 20 car thefts leads to charges, or 4.9 per cent of the 100,000. In the worst cases, such as in London and the West Midlands, it’s one in 40.

The worst performing police forces for detecting car thieves last year were: West Midlands (2.45 per cent), Metropolitan (2.5 per cent), Bedfordshire (3 per cent), Greater Manchester (3.5 per cent) and Surrey (3.6 per cent).

By contrast, the best performers were Dyfed-Powys (18.6 per cent), Cumbria (18.1 per cent), North Yorkshire (13.8 per cent), North Wales (13.6 per cent) and Norfolk (12.45 per cent).

When it comes to beating the crooks, motorists are increasingly on their own.

Modern tactics

Opportunist thieves can strike anywhere, so lock doors and keep valuables out of sight.

Thieves push poles and fishing rods through letterboxes to snag keys left on hallway tables.

But some security specialists advise against hiding your car keys too obscurely in your home, warning that if serious criminals really want to steal your car, they will break in and may threaten you for the keys.

Meanwhile, many thieves have turned to high-tech methods, such as keyless theft, also known as ‘relay’ theft, where crooks use a hand-held electronic device (which can be bought online) to fool the car into thinking the key is close by. This unlocks the car and allows the ignition to be started.

But you can block the key fob’s signal by putting it inside a small metal box and keeping it well away from the front door — at least five metres. You can also buy special Faraday pouches — wallets which shield the key’s radio signal from being transmitted.

A new tactic is the use of ‘jammers’, mainly in public and supermarket car parks. Thieves lurk near motorists and strike when they press their keys to lock the car doors. The criminals have an electric jamming device which blocks that signal between the key fob and the car.

Five top tips to beat the car thieves

The figures

Car parts and catalytic converters are big business for criminals.

Last year alone, some £71.2 million worth of car parts were stolen — with number plates and catalytic converters the top items, according to research by Direct Line Motor Insurance.

Over the past three years, an estimated 474,600 car parts were stolen in the UK, including 53,000 number plates and 40,000 catalytic converters.

The combined total value of stolen cars and car parts over three years is more than £744 million, says the insurer.

Carjacking is also making a comeback, according to Direct Line which, in partnership with the University of Huddersfield, has launched a Truth About Car Theft campaign.

This combines academic research and insight from convicted car thieves to understand the motive, means and opportunities for vehicle crime to help motorists reduce the risk of falling victim to other criminals. One convicted car thief interviewed for the study noted chillingly: ‘There’s a new generation of kids coming out now. They tend to not be bothered about using violence.’

This week, Direct Line published figures showing that London is the carjacking capital of Britain — and Croydon the borough with the highest number of aggravated vehicle takings, with 139 between 2019 and 2021.

Croydon is followed by Enfield (132) Newham (128) and Brent (125). London boroughs with the lowest rates are Kingston upon Thames (30), Kensington and Chelsea (40) and Richmond upon Thames (42).

Charity IAM RoadSmart (iamroadsmart.com) and Direct Line (directline.com) have checklists of advice for motorists, which include tips such as: always check your car is locked, keep your car in a locked garage, consider CCTV, or park in a well-lit spot on the street and consider a gravel drive as thieves hate noise.

Keep valuables or tempting items out of sight and ideally not in your car at all. Fit a car alarm and tracker.

Keep your keys safe and avoid them being near windows or on a hallway table.

If your car has a keyless car entry system, put the fob in a signal blocking bag. And buy a physical steering wheel lock or similar device.

DIY detectives

Failure to catch the criminals is frustrating motorists.

Fed up with police inaction, TV broadcaster and journalist Giles Coren took to Twitter to document his own hunt for his £65,000 electric Jaguar I-Pace crossover SUV when it was stolen in April last year.

Another ‘DIY car-crime detective’ was Jo Coombs from Battersea, London, who used her car insurance GPS tracker and connected app to locate her stolen Land Rover.

However, specialist firm Tracker urges victims not to confront the criminals.

And many cars are stolen to order and shipped abroad in containers.

Range Rovers made up nearly two-fifths (38 per cent) of all stolen cars identified for illegal ‘export’ from the main Felixstowe, Tilbury and Southampton docks in 2020, according to figures from the National Vehicle Crime Intelligence Service (NaVCIS) obtained by Direct Line.

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