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Car Thieves and Car Keys: A new study shows an alarming number of drivers aren’t using common sense when it comes to securing their vehicles

By Nick DiUlio

leaving keys in ignitionIt looks like car thieves are getting a lot of help these days…from owners who leave their keys in the vehicle.

According to a recent first-of-its-kind analysis from the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), an increasing number of vehicle thefts are being committed with the keys left inside. According to the study, a total of 126,603 vehicles were reported stolen with the keys left in the vehicle between 2012 and 2014.

According to Frank Scafidi, NICB director of public affairs, overall vehicle thefts have been steadily declining over the past decade. However, vehicles stolen with keys left inside are “trending in the opposite direction.”

As a percentage of overall thefts, 5.4 percent of vehicles stolen (39,345) in 2012 had their keys in them. That figure rose to 6 percent (42,430) in 2013, and in 2014, it increased again to 6.7 percent (44,828).

“That’s a lot of cars,” says Scafidi. “This wasn’t necessarily all that surprising but it does provide us with a statistical foundation for what we all presumed was occurring. Car theft is becoming harder and harder with new anti-theft technologies emerging all the time. So it’s becoming very difficult to steal new vehicles without the keys.”

To contextualize the significance of these numbers, Scafidi points out that if the 44,828 thefts in 2014 were removed from the estimated total of 659,717 total, overall thefts would fall to 614,889. “We haven’t seen a number that low since 1966,” says Scafidi.

“Am I shocked by these numbers? Not one bit,” wrote NICB president and CEO Joe Wehrle in an April press release. “In fact, I’m sure the numbers are probably higher, because we are only able to determine the thefts where the car was recovered with the keys inside, or where someone admitted they left the keys in the car or the ignition. Many times that is not admitted in the police report or the insurance claim. We also see some cases where the owner gives up the car by leaving the keys in it to allow it to be stolen so that an insurance claim payment can help them get out from under a financial bind. Anyone who does that is committing fraud.”

State and metro area figures

According to the NICB study, the following five states posted the most vehicle thefts with keys between 2012 and 2014:

—California: 19,597 vehicles

—Texas: 8,796 vehicles

—Florida: 7,868 vehicles

—Michigan: 7,726 vehicles

—Ohio: 7,452 vehicles

Meanwhile, the following five metro areas posted the most vehicle thefts with keys between 2012 and 2014:

—Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise, Nevada: 6,185 vehicles

—Detroit-Warren-Dearborn, Michigan: 4,882 vehicles

—Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Roswell, Georgia: 3,234 vehicles

—Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, Pennsylvania/New Jersey/Delaware: 3,141 vehicles

—New York-Newark-Jersey City: 2,917 vehicles

Why is this happening?

While the NICB study didn’t gather any data on the reasons why so many vehicles are being stolen with the keys left inside, Scafidi thinks it’s probably a combination of factors.

“It’s an old, tired, worn out bit of advice to lock your car and take the keys with you, but it’s still incredibly relevant,” says Scafidi. “Why people neglect to do so, we don’t know exactly. Some of it’s careless, some of it’s a false sense of security, and some of it’s just absent-minded behavior.”

Consider, for instance, the case of Melissa McClure.

In 2011 McLure’s car was stolen from her then-boyfriend’s driveway. She had accidently left her keys inside her boyfriend’s car, which was parked in the same driveway. When thieves broke into her boyfriend’s car they discovered McClure’s keys and made off with her vehicle.

“The reason the keys were in his car was silly,” recalls McClure. “We were playing musical chairs with cars earlier in the week and my spare key was left inside his by mistake.”

Another possible source of this trend may be a current cultural mindset of rushed behavior, says Carroll Lachnit, features editor for the automotive website

“I’m really kind of stymied by this [NICB] report,” says Lachnit. “One of the things I keep coming back to is that people think it will only take a second to run into the house or grab something quickly from the store. But in truth it may only take less than a minute for a thief to take advantage of a situation like that. But here’s the thing: If you never leave your keys in your car, you’ll never be victimized by that possibility. Some risks are hard to avoid—this one isn’t.”

What’s more, thieves are finding some innovative ways to get their hands on car keys these days, says D.J. Thompson, a 22-year veteran of the Connecticut State Police and senior director of law enforcement for LoJack Corp., a provider of tracking and recovery systems for stolen vehicles.

“This isn’t just about people leaving their keys in the car,” says Thompson. “Car thieves may swap keys during a test drive at a dealership. They may break into a home and steal the keys from the kitchen counter. They may steal them from a gym locker room or hanging key board. It’s becoming more and more difficult to steal cars without the key these days, so thieves are getting creative in the ways they can get their hands on a key.”

By the way, a recent feature points out that the replacement costs for newer “smart” car keys can be staggering, sometimes falling in between $240 and $400.

Don’t become a victim.

According to Scafidi, this new data isn’t worthy of widespread panic, but it should raise awareness to the problem—and drivers should take precautions.

“Car theft in general is something to be aware of but not lose sleep over,” says Scafidi. “If you practice the two things we preach most often—keeping the car secured or locked and keeping things inside it hidden from site—you drastically reduce your chances of a vehicle being stolen.”

Here are a few more ways to protect yourself and your vehicle:

Use common sense. According to the Texas Auto Burglary and Theft Prevention Authority, almost half of all stolen vehicles are left unlocked, underscoring the need for preventive measures.

Thompson says drivers should also be aware of people who may be borrowing their keys or their cars. Also, never leave your keys in the vehicle with the engine running (no matter how cold or hot is it outside), don't hide a spare key in the vehicle, and close all windows and lock all doors when leaving.

“It still continues to shock me how people don’t use common sense in these matters,” says Thompson. “I’m not saying people are stupid, but it’s a lack of common sense and close attention to how you’re leaving your car.”

In addition, you should never leave valuables visible in your car, especially if they include information about your identity (such as a wallet, important financial documents, or a laptop).

Keep your car keys in your bedroom. According to Thompson, this simple change in behavior can make a world of difference.

“Most of us leave our keys on a hook in the garage or on the kitchen counter. But if you’ve got them in your bedroom, a thief can’t simply break into your house and make off with your car,” says Thompson. “What’s more, if your keys are in your bedroom and you hear someone break into your house, you can simply reach over and hit the car alarm panic button to scare him off.”

Use theft prevention products. Even if you forget your keys in the car (or a thief obtains them through other means) he or she may be less inclined to steal your car if it has visible and audible warning devices like a wheel lock or alarm system, Scafidi says.

Thompson adds that immobilizers—which include smart keys that can be used to prevent thieves from hotwiring a vehicle, kill switches and fuel cut-off devices—can offer another means of protection. While professional crooks often can disable these devices, they do offer another means of deterrence.

Comprehensive insurance is critical

There’s only one type of insurance that will protect you if your car is stolen. It’s called comprehensive coverage, and it’s an optional addition to basic liability coverage.

Comprehensive coverage applies to things like theft, fire, lightning, wind and flooding. Mike Barry, a spokesman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute, says many drivers incorrectly think they need collision coverage to protect against theft. Optional collision coverage kicks in only when your car hits another car or object.

“If you drive a newer model car, it’s a good idea to consider buying comprehensive coverage,” Barry says. “It’s relatively inexpensive and brings with it some peace of mind.”

Filing a comprehensive claim

If your vehicle is stolen and a comprehensive claim is filed, Barry says, insurance companies will reimburse drivers for the “fair market value” of the loss. That means if you drive an older vehicle with 100,000-plus miles, you probably aren’t going to get a lot for the claim.

Moreover, a comprehensive claim—no matter the underlying cause—will ding your auto insurance rates. How much depends on your insurance company and how it calculates your premium. For instance, if your premium includes "loss free credits"—percentage discounts offered by insurance companies for blocks of years that go by without a loss—you'll lose them because you're no longer "loss free.”

“File a claim as soon as possible,” Barry says. “The faster you report it as stolen, the better chance it will be recovered.”

That being said, recovery rates for stolen vehicles are still pretty low. According to the FBI’s most recent figures, 45 percent of stolen vehicles are never recovered.

“And the ones they do find aren’t usually in great condition,” says Thompson. “The bottom line is that having your car stolen is a huge problem, and if you’re not using common sense with your keys you’re part of the problem.”