Stolen Key Codes a Concern as U.S. Car Thefts Continue Decline

Despite the good news that overall auto thefts are at their lowest level since 1967, National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) officials say they are seeing an uptick in thefts of late-model vehicle equipped with key-code technology that is becoming a point of concern.

Those key codes are signature IDs contained within a device that communicate with the vehicle and allow access to it.

Automakers introduced key-code technology to car models after 1997, and vehicles equipped with the anti-theft technology “have been credited with reducing car thefts by the hundreds of thousands in the past decade,” said NICB vice president Roger Morris.

But that may be changing.

“We are seeing a trend toward increases in the thefts of late model vehicles—ones that are theoretically harder to steal due to sophisticated key-code technology,” NICB president and CEO Joe Wehrle said in a statement.

The NICB analyzed 531,031 key-code replacements in the first quarter of 2012 and found that 277 of those vehicles were stolen within a week of the replacement.

NICB CEO Jason Schweitzer said criminals have “figured out how to work the system and get their hands on these transponder keys.”

“The thieves will actually go out and shop for a vehicle,” he said, adding that it allows them to obtain the vehicle identification number to support phony paperwork that they submit to locksmiths or dealerships for replacement key transponders.

Upon obtaining the device, Schweitzer said, “it’s as simple as going back to the car the next day, putting the key in the lock and driving the car away.”

The bureau said its findings will drive an effort with law enforcement agencies and automakers to track those transactions.

“I think technology will continue to be the most significant aspect of not just auto theft prevention but in many other kinds of crimes,” NICB spokesman Frank Scafidi said.

Accord Continues Reign as Most-Stolen Auto

The NICB’s concerns over key-code technology were included in its annual listing of the most-stolen vehicles, in which the 1994 Honda Accord again topped the list.

According to the NICB, there were 7,596 reports of stolen 1994 Honda Accords, making it by far the most stolen make and model in 2011; it was also atop those “Hot Wheels” rankings in 2010 and 2009.

In addition, the 1995 Honda Civic has been the second-most stolen vehicle for the past three years. In 2011, 4,765 of the make and model were reported stolen.

The latest numbers continue a nationwide decline in vehicle thefts, with estimates from the Federal Bureau of Investigation showing a 3.3 percent drop in the number of thefts in 2011 compared with the year before.

“Overall, it’s a good story,” Scafidi said in a phone interview.

Insurance Implications of Auto Theft

Comprehensive insurance coverage shields a policyholder in situations of theft, but the price tag for consumers who get that auto insurance coverage varies depending on the make and model of the car and an insurer’s claims figures for it.

For example, comprehensive insurance coverage may be pricier to obtain for a 1994 Honda Accord, since it has been ranked as the most-stolen vehicle in the U.S. in the past three years.

“Hot Wheels” culls its data from the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and shows all stolen vehicles, including those that are not reported to insurance providers, for a fuller picture of car theft across the nation.

It is the only report to do so, according to the NICB, which added that findings from studies including only thefts of vehicles with comprehensive coverage are distorted because owners with older models seldom buy that type of coverage so rarely submit claims to their insurer when the vehicle is stolen.

About Charles Nguyen
Charles Nguyen is an enterprising journalist who reported for and the Desert Dispatch and was the editor in chief of the Guardian (the twice-weekly newspaper at the University of California, San Diego) before coming to Online Auto Insurance News.

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