Len Cutter woke one morning earlier this year to find his late-model Honda Civic had some reconstructive work done. The rear window was laying, broken, across the rear seats, although nothing inside the car was taken. As it turns out, the thieves were after his roof rack.
"They're going to break into my car and steal a roof rack?" he said. "Gimme a break."
Cutter, of Long Beach, California, fell victim to a common trend in auto thievery: components are now more attractive than the car itself.
Vehicles are getting harder to steal outright, especially given massive advances in anti-theft technology (current hi-tech keys won't even allow you to turn the engine over unless the right microchip is present, moving hotwiring into the realm of cultural artifact). As a result, car thieves are stealing components such as GPS devices, DVD systems, rims and tires and, indeed, roof racks, rather than the whole vehicle. Yet, as cars become more futuristic, some old trends are returning. Here are the top trends in auto knavery that you need to keep in mind:
1. Odometer Fraud
Amid so many technological advances, the full digitization of the dashboard has had an effect on odometers. Odometer rollbacks are "back in a big way," said Christopher Basso of Carfax. "There is widespread use of digital odometers. People are getting software off the internet rather than cracking open the dash and hand-cranking back the odometer. It's harder to detect as there are no physical signs the vehicle has been tampered with."
Odometer rollbacks increased 57 percent from 2004-2008 (the last year for which data is available), with more than 450,000 cases reported annually. Over the last five years there's been a nearly 60 percent increase in the number of vehicles reported with odometer rollbacks, Basso says. The number of unreported cases -- where a consumer is unaware there is a problem -- is potentially much higher.
"It is a big and growing problem that continues to plague used-car buyers," said Basso.
But Frank Scafidi, of the National Insurance Crime Bureau, says rolling back odometers "is not as easy as it used to be."
"It happens here or there but it is not the predominant cause of auto fraud. Just like making moonshine, you're still going to find people somewhere doing it because they know how to do it. It's just now most people prefer to get their alcohol at a liquor store."
2. Car Cloning
Scafidi says one of the newest auto frauds is "car cloning." Cloning occurs when multiple (usually higher-end) cars of the same model are stolen and registered with a VIN number from a legitimate vehicle.
"The thieves go get a VIN number from a showroom floor and reproduce it three or four times and attach it to the stolen vehicles and then ship them to four or five states," said Scafidi. "The multiple VIN numbers for us are the biggest red flags out there, and we go get 'em."
The FBI says that car-cloning rings -- often established for decades -- operate in most major cities nationwide. While there is no way to calculate true rates of car cloning, the FBI says it constitutes a "significant percentage" of vehicle thefts, the value of which totaled $6.4 billion in 2008. The agency recommends always buying your car from a reputable dealership and checking your car's VIN number with your state's licensing agency before you buy.
Common warning signs that you may have bought a cloned car include receiving unpaid traffic tickets you haven't sustained; a model being sold for much less than buyer's guides indicate it should be; scratches or evidence of tampering on the car's VIN number on the door frame or engine block; or a missing vehicle history report.
Terri Miller, director of Michigan's Halt Auto Theft program, says: "We're seeing a lot of cloning. They'll go to a scapyard and buy a clean title and they can then use that number on a vehicle of the same make and model."
3. Component theft and resale
With car stereos -- traditionally the item most stolen from cars -- getting harder to pilfer as a result of electronic security measures, thieves are getting more inventive.
Nationally, more than 75,000 airbags are stolen every year, according to the FBI. Thefts of GPS and DVD systems are increasing alongside the popularity of the devices among aftermarket buyers. Thefts of xenon headlights are also a growing problem. The advantage (or disadvantage) of component theft: The goods often are difficult to track and usually there's a fairly constant demand for them.
Miller says component theft is "the biggest thing. As cars are getting harder to steal, they have to steal parts of them. We're seeing easily fenced items such as tires, rims and GPS units getting stolen."
She says many items end up being sold online or on the street. In many cases buyers may think they're buying a legitimate product rather than a stolen part. She says that criminal enterprises, like legitimate businesses, mainly work on the basis of supply and demand.
"Occasionally, when, for example, Ford Taurus airbags are on back order, we'll see an increase in thefts."
You may think that carjackings had gone the way of spinning rims, but rates are holding steady in Southern California and increasing in Michigan. And there are pockets of America urban areas where the trend never really died down.
Officer Canales of the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart Division says carjacking is still "pretty common."
"We get a few every now and then, usually a gun or knife is involved. It can be anything from high-value to low-value [cars] but we see more Hondas -- Accords and Civics -- and Toyotas."
Carjackings occur most frequently in urban areas and account for about three percent of all thefts, the Insurance Information Institute reports.
"A co-worker of my husband last week was carjacked outside a pizza parlor," Miller said. "He pointed a gun and said, 'You know what I want,' and drove off in his brand-new Mustang.
"Most carjackings involve a weapon so we always advise motorists to hand over their keys before they become a statistic," Miller says.
Where You Live Is As Important As What You Drive
A motor vehicle is stolen in the United States every 33 seconds, according to the FBI. In 2008, most vehicles -- or 37.8 percent, were stolen in the South, followed by the West at 33.9 percent, the Midwest at 18.3 percent and the Northeast at 10 percent. But thefts are decreasing by about 12 percent year on year for the last five years.
"Thefts follow technology," said Scafidi. "Smart keys or digital security devices are playing a big part in the reduction."
Here are the latest car theft statistics from broken down by city and model.
Rank (by density)/ Metropolitan / Vehicles Stolen
1. Laredo, TX 1,792
2. Modesto, CA 3,712
3. Bakersfield, CA 5,530
4. Stockton, CA 4,479
5. Fresno, CA5,875
6. Yakima, WA1,525
7. San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA 26,374
8. Visalia-Porterville, CA 2,440
9. Las Vegas-Paradise, NV 10,706
10. Albuquerque, NM 4,815
Source: Auto thefts by cities 2009; National Insurance Crime Bureau
Rank / Year / Make / Model
1. 1994 Honda Accord
2. 1995 Honda Civic
3. 1989 Toyota Camry
4. 1997 Ford F-150 Pickup
5. 2004 Dodge Ram Pickup
6. 2000 Dodge Caravan
7. 1996 Jeep Cherokee/Grand Cherokee
8. 1994 Acura Integra
9. 1999 Ford Taurus
10. 2002 Ford Explorer
Source: Auto theft by model 2008; National Insurance Crime Bureau.