It takes less time for a professional thief to break into your car, start it up and drive away as it does for you to walk into 7-11, plunk down three bucks for a bagel and coffee and emerge to watch your ride recede into the distance. And don't presume your elderly clunker's immune; the most stolen vehicle of 2008, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, was the 1994 Honda Accord.

"We know that thieves never miss an opportunity to make a quick buck by stealing a car," says Joe Wehrle, president and CEO of NICB. "They work weekends, nights and holidays and ironically, they are particularly busy on New Year's Day and Labor Day."

While there isn't any way to stop a crook who really wants your ride and has the tools and know-how to make it happen, the following tips can help your car become a less inviting target and slow down, discourage or actually prevent car theft.

Park in plain sight

Holiday Car Theft

Holiday Number of Thefts
New Year's Day 3,017
Labor Day 2,847
Halloween 2,727
President's Day 2,683
Memorial Day 2,599
Independence Day 2,584
Valentine's Day 2,389
Christmas Eve 1,841
Thanksgiving 1,806
Christmas Day 1,267
New Year's Eve 916

The holidays ranked by number of thefts reported to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) for 2008.

Our natural inclination is to hide something we don't want anyone to steal, but for cars, visibility is the key to safety, say experts. Thieves prefer to work out of sight of people and electronic recording devices, so leave your car in a well-lit, populated area.

Take your keys---always.
If you think this tip falls into the "duh" section of car theft prevention, try Googling the phrase "keys in ignition" or similar and you'll see many trusting souls leave the equivalent of a sign reading "FREE CAR!" hanging from their ignition switches on a daily basis. Car theft is often a crime of opportunity, so shut yours off and pocket your keys even if you're only ducking into a convenience store.

Don't hide your keys anywhere within or outside the car.
You know those magnetic key holders you can buy to store your spare key? Leave it in your house on the fridge, not under bumpers, in the glove compartment or anywhere in the car. Thieves know all the hiding places you do, and probably a few more.

Use a variety of methods to slow would-be thieves.
Car alarms are ubiquitous and often go ignored. When used in tandem with other theft prevention methods, though, they will make a thief naturally try to work faster, and if he comes across other security measures, he may give up altogether and move on. Apply the emergency brake, turn your wheels hard left or right and set the car in "park" or in gear, making it more difficult for you to be quickly towed, and consider using a vehicle recovery system like LoJack or an engine immobilizer device such as Ravelco.

Disable your battery if parking long-term
A thief won't spend time trying to diagnose an apparent engine problem. Consider yanking one of the cable wires to your battery if you're leaving your car parked at an airport or anywhere else where it will sit unattended for more than a few days.

Sign valuable parts
Take the time to embed your Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) on the inside of your trunk, inside your doors, on your sound system components and any other pricey parts thieves like to chop. If you don't feel like doing it yourself, contact your local police precinct or even your insurance company, some of whom offer free VIN etchings.

Go east
California is the number one state for auto theft, according to the National Insurance Crime bureau, with the town of Modesto ranking #1 with 4,235 vehicles stolen in 2008.

The good news for all of us is that auto thefts were down almost 9% overall in 2008, according to the NICB, to less than one million a year in 2008. With foresight and preventive measures that don't take much time, you can help ensure you'll never have to experience that unique nausea familiar to anyone finding a grease spot where their car was parked.