How to prevent car theft and break-ins

Stolen cars and car break-ins have been on the rise for the past several years, but they’ve seen a particular spike in 2020. This is largely due to the pandemic and people driving less and often leaving their cars parked for long periods of time (for tips on how to keep it mechanically sound, check out our article on how to care for your car during quarantine).

There is, of course, only so much you can do to protect your car (assuming it’s not a Tesla, with its own hyper-vigilant ‘Sentry mode’) when you have to leave it parked outside. But here are some safety tips to help you minimize your chances of finding your car broken into, or gone altogether.

1. Don’t leave anything in sight

A lot of us leave things in the car, because it’s often easier than carrying them back and forth between the car and our house or office. But putting everything (even things that aren’t valuable) in the trunk or otherwise out of sight is the best way to prevent a break-in.

Even an empty messenger bag can look like it might have a laptop in it, so a car that’s completely empty is the best way to make sure a thief passes on by.

2. Park under lights, and in a high-visibility, high-traffic area

As much as you can, try to avoid parking in secluded areas, or spots where your car is not in plain view. Ideally, it’s best to park in places where there are a lot of people walking by at all hours, and where no one can get close to your car without being observed. An end spot is better than one in between other cars, and a parking place on a busy street is preferable over an out-of-the-way parking lot.

If your car will be parked overnight, it’s useful to park in a well-lit area or under a light if possible.

3. Install a car alarm—or car alarm stickers

We’ve all heard car alarms going off enough to pretty much ignore them, and they’re clearly not 100% effective. But that doesn’t mean they’re not a first-level deterrent to keep your car from being targeted in the first place. And if someone does break into your car, they’re likely not going to stick around very long if there’s an alarm blaring and calling attention to their presence.

For the deterrent effect—whether or not you actually have an alarm system installed—place alarm stickers so that they’re visible on your car, ideally on the front driver and passenger-side windows (usually placed near the lower right-hand corner).

4. Try to move your car, or at least keep it from looking abandoned

Even if your car is parked without being driven for long stretches of time, it’s a good idea to try to move it to different spots in a lot or on the street if you can—would-be burglars and thieves notice when a car has been in the same place for a long period of time, and are more likely to target it.

Even if you can’t move it, try to make sure it doesn’t accumulate too much dust/dirt, snow, a flyer under the windshield wiper for days, or anything else that makes it obvious it’s being left alone. A car that has clearly been left sitting for long periods of time becomes an ideal target for a car thief, because they know it’s not likely anyone will miss it or report it stolen for at least several days. That’s a huge advantage because it gives them plenty of time to get away, and/or to sell it or its parts.

5. Lock down your catalytic convertor

If you have a truck or SUV, or a Toyota Prius or other hybrid, you’re much more likely than other drivers to have your catalytic convertor stolen. In the SUVs and trucks, the higher clearance makes them easier targets, since there’s ample room for a thief to slide under the car and easily saw out the convertor in just two to three minutes.

Priuses and other hybrids are frequent targets because they have both a gas engine and an electric motor, which means the metals inside them don’t corrode as much as on a regular gas-powered car. And the metals inside the convertor are the whole point of the theft: catalytic convertors generally have platinum, palladium, and/or rhodium inside them. Thieves steal them and sell them for scrap, and can often get $100 to $200 per convertor.

The people who buy the convertor as scrap metal (buying scrap metal with cash is also illegal, but that doesn’t seem to be much of a deterrent) then extract the precious metals. They can get a tremendous amount of money for them, with one ounce of rhodium commanding $6,000.

It’s expensive to replace a catalytic convertor, and even if your insurance covers it, it’s a big inconvenience. From starting your car one morning and hearing a jarringly loud noise, to getting it replaced, it can take days or weeks to get the part. (This is basically an epidemic in a lot of areas, so replacements are in short supply.)

There are some relatively simple ways to deter thieves by preventing quick theft of your convertor; some shops will weld a cage in around it, or you can get an install-it-yourself product like the CatClamp.

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