Michigan Officials Sound Alarm on New Car Theft Schemes

Better in-vehicle technology that has become more common has spurred an “evolving trend” of “unconventional” car-related crimes in Michigan, according to the executive director of a statewide citizen action program.

Criminals are increasingly engaging in “brazen” approaches to such crimes, said Terri Miller, executive director for Help Eliminate Auto Thefts (H.E.A.T.), leading to an increase in carjackings, theft of parts, car cloning and several types of fraud.

The Key Is the Key for Thieves

Authorities are seeing “traditional” types of auto theft like break-ins becoming less common as most new vehicles come standard with “built-in theft-prevention devices, so they are more difficult to steal,” according to Miller, who heads the tipster and auto theft prevention program.

But even improvements in anti-theft technologies, like key codes, aren’t completely stopping car thefts; car thieves are merely adjusting.

“[Criminals are] taking more vehicles directly from owners since they need the keys to operate them,” Miller said in an interview with Online Auto Insurance News (OAIN). “So carjackings are increasing, as well as schemes at dealerships where thieves swap a key from a test drive with a fake key and return later to steal the vehicle.”

This “bolder” approach from criminals shouldn’t mean drivers be equally bold if they are confronted by a carjacker, according to H.E.A.T.

“Most carjackings involve weapons, so give up your car and quickly exit the scene,” H.E.A.T. stated in a release. “No vehicle is worth your life.”

Drivers should be especially wary around gas stations and parking lots that are often targeted by carjackers, according to the advisory.

Parts theft is also a highly prevalent crime these days, Miller said, and still includes catalytic converters that contain precious metals that are valuable to scrap sellers and can be swiped from a car’s underbelly within minutes.

The number of stolen navigation systems is also increasing, according to H.E.A.T.

Crime Goes Online, Gets Computerized

But technology is not just thwarting criminals—it often aids them.

Many car parts end up on online shopping forums and purchasing websites that are “easy outlets” for criminals needing to unload stolen goods, Miller said.

Such sites can range from the well-known Craigslist.com to localized websites like cars4detroit.com.

Online purchases are also increasingly leading to auto thefts, according to Miller, who said that criminals use stolen credit lines to set up out-of-state buys. The final exchange for those purchases typically takes place at “an untraceable location,” like fast food restaurants.

“The seller finds both the vehicle and the buyer ‘gone’ by the time the scheme is discovered,” said Miller, who added that computers also aiding thieves to fabricate documents once the vehicle is stolen.

Technology is also helping criminals retag and clone cars, a practice involving duplicate vehicle identification numbers (VIN) that allow car thieves to sell a stolen car as legitimate.

Such crimes can be especially prevalent following natural disasters, a lesson Miller said that H.E.A.T. observed after Hurricane Katrina.

“Hurricane Katrina taught us that there is great demand for flood-damaged vehicles after a natural disaster,” she told OAIN. “They look good on the outside, can be purchased for pennies on the dollar and are easily resold to an unsuspecting buyer after cleaning or replacing some carpeting or floor mats.”

Trade organizations have issued nationwide advisories about the how to avoid shady deals involving flooded vehicles from Superstorm Sandy.

According to Miller, H.E.A.T. hasn’t seen notable incidents of car-related crimes following catastrophes like Sandy and tornadoes in Oklahoma. Still, she said that drivers can take preventative measures:
–Get a vehicle history report before the purchase.
–Compare paperwork with the VIN numbers on the dash, stamped on the engine and other parts on the manufacturer sticker on the driver’s door pillar.
–If they don’t all match, step away from the deal.

Miller said her best piece of advice for online shoppers and buyers is the age-old adage: “If the deal is too good to be true, it probably is.”

Michigan Ranks High in Auto Theft Numbers

According to FBI statistics, Michigan has the sixth-highest number of auto thefts in the U.S. with more than 25,000 stolen cars in 2011, the latest year for which the bureau has complete statistics.

H.E.A.T., which is funded by Michigan auto insurers, is a public-private partnership that utilizes support from law enforcement and trade organizations, including the National Insurance Crime Bureau. It has collected more than 9,500 tips, all of which are anonymous and can lead to up to $10,000 in reward money for a tipster, according to its website.

H.E.A.T. could not provide specific data on the increase in the “unconventional” auto thefts in Michigan it said drivers should be aware of, but Miller said that the organization was acting on advice from its partners in law enforcement.

“Our law enforcement contacts indicate these crimes are increasing as traditional auto theft is decreasing,” Miller told OAIN, adding that auto theft figures impact the “comprehensive portion of your insurance premium.”

The comprehensive coverage portion of an insured driver’s policy protects them against auto thefts. That means a rise in claim expenses for auto thefts in policyholders’ area can lead to a corresponding rise in the price of their comprehensive coverage.

That connection can be reflected nationwide. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the number of stolen cars has been falling for the better part of a decade. And according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC), the average premium for comprehensive coverage dropped nearly a full percentage point between 2008 and 2009.

Comprehensive coverage is optional but is bought by more than 3 out of every 4 drivers in the U.S., according to the Insurance Information Institute (III).

And although the number of stolen cars has been falling nationwide, the III says that the size of insurance claims for auto theft are growing because of:
–The higher value of new cars on the road
–The value of the cars that are targets for theft or are damaged
–The cost of vehicle bodywork and components

Also, according to the III, anti-theft devices can sometimes mean a discount on their auto coverage. Policyholders should check with their insurer and state regulatory agency, as discounts are required by some state and various insurers offer discounts for theft devices voluntarily.

About Charles Nguyen
Charles Nguyen is an enterprising journalist who reported for Patch.com 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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