The beeping grows louder, more confident even, as the signal shows more bars and the directional arrow grows more sure of itself. We're getting closer to finding my car, using a few simple and clear cues delivered by a LoJack tracking computer.
??D.J. Thompson, Director of Law Enforcement for LoJack and a retired Connecticut State Trooper who served eight years as a detective in the auto theft unit, is demonstrating the LoJack recovery system. With my car safely parked at the local State Police barracks in Bridgeport, Connecticut, Thompson has placed a demonstration transponder in my car and driven me across this unfamiliar city in an attempt to locate my car solely with the LoJack Police Tracking Computer, a small, mobile device distributed to law enforcement in the 28 states where LoJack operates.?
Auto theft has been trending down for some time now, with the overall number of cars taken dropping just below 1,000,000 in 2008 for the first time in decades. But that still translates to one car stolen every 33 seconds. Even worse, the percentage of vehicles recovered has also dropped, to just 57 percent.
It's a cat-and-mouse game where auto thieves and the authorities that pursue them are constantly upping the ante in terms of technology, strategy and practice. Thompson says, "It's ever changing because... the manufacturers build in more anti-theft features as new ones come out. The thief has to then learn how to defeat that. And they do. And the police have to learn how to catch that person that defeats that. So, the whole game is constantly evolving with auto theft. It's a daily learning experience for a police officer because things are changing."
??There are many anti-theft devices, form hardened steel steering wheel locks like The Club to factory-installed encrypted electronic keys, but there are basically only two types of stolen vehicle recovery systems: Radio frequency location devices from LoJack, or GPS and cellular systems that are frequently included in much broader telematics packages like OnStar.?
How They Work
?LoJack uses a hidden radio transceiver that operates locally, sending out a signal to law enforcement units close by that are equipped with the receiver. A police officer on patrol who picks up a LoJack signal can immediately get an idea of the general direction and relative strength of signal from the stolen vehicle. Additional details, such as the make, model, color and license tags are provided by a dispatcher for visual confirmation. The LoJack tracking computer has a range of three to five miles on the ground, but aircraft-based tracking equipment can find a car as far as 40 miles away.
??GPS-based systems, such as OnStar, Toyota Safety Connect and BMW Assist, use a car's built-in GPS to derive the vehicle's location and an on board cellular communications system to report that information to an administrative center that immediately shares that information with law enforcement in the area. OnStar now also boasts Stolen Vehicle Slowdown, which allows a car to be safely and remotely slowed to a stop, and Remote Ignition Block, which prevents a stolen car from being restarted once it is turned off.
There are pros and cons to each type of system. GPS-based systems have the advantage of immediately reporting their location to authorities, but they also must have both a satellite signal and a cellular connection to make that call. Thieves that steal a car by towing it can immediately disable such systems by disconnecting the battery. LoJack's Achilles heels is that it can only report a relative location and it requires a police officer within a few miles with a receiver in his car. However, LoJack transmitters, which can be hidden in more than 20 different locations throughout a vehicle, have on-board battery backup power and their signals can go through walls, concrete and even shipping containers. LoJack currently only operates in 28 states, whereas GPS-equipped recovery systems work nationwide. Unlike telematics systems, police officers do the actual vehicle tracking, not a third-party civilian unit at a call center that's potentially thousands of miles away. Of course, those police cruisers must be equipped with the tracking computers.?
Recovering Your Car
?Both systems shine in their ability to begin tracking your car almost immediately after it is stolen. This is good, as your chances of recovering your vehicle diminish greatly with each hour and each day the authorities don't find it. Both systems offer immediate tracking and LoJack reports a 90-percent recovery rate with most cars returned to their owners within 24 hours. OnStar reports a 76-percent recovery rate.
??Purchasing LoJack requires a one-time fee of $695 that protects the car as long as it is on the road, meaning the purchaser and all subsequent owners of the car. The LoJack device is married to the car's VIN and registered in the FBI's national database. Telematics systems, which usually include GPS navigation, hands-free Bluetooth communication, and often a human concierge service available at the press of a button, require a subscription after introductory periods expire for the first owner. Most insurance companies offer discounts for cars equipped with theft recovery systems, but the availability and amount can vary from state to state.??
At the very least, the mere existence of such systems has changed the game for car thieves. Since thieves don't know if a car contains a theft recovery system, in many cases instead of taking a vehicle directly, they will put it in a cooling off spot, a publicly accessible lot they can leave it in for a couple of days to see if it is being tracked or watched. Savvy cops may notice these out-of-place vehicles even if there is no tracking device in them. But if the car does not draw any heat for a few days, then the thieves know they can proceed with the dismantling, export or other illicit sale of the vehicle. As Thompson points out, "Thieves know that there are tracking devices on cars. Because if they didn't have tracking devices on cars, they would just steal them and drive them right into the garage."??
Theft Deterrents and Common Sense??
To borrow a painfully overused phrase, you need to be proactive about protecting your car. Since most car alarms just get ignored today, you need to think of other deterrents. While a professional thief can readily defeat The Club, the opportunistic thief will skip that car and move to the next one. So while it's not foolproof, a Club or other such device may stop a thief from taking your car, even if it doesn't stop him from stealing someone elses. Kill switches and coded electronic security devices like the Ravelco anti-theft device will also inhibit most thieves.
??Beyond theft deterrent devices, you need to use common sense. Parking in a far corner of the mall lot might help prevent door dings, but it also presents an opportunity to thieves, who generally prefer to work away from prying eyes. Don't leave your keys in the car. Seems sort of obvious, doesn't it? While there are no good national statistics on the matter, the Wichita police reported nearly one in six stolen cars in 2009 involved the owner leaving the keys in the car. Likewise, don't leave valuables in plain sight.
??Even if your insurance pays for your lost car, not everyone has comprehensive insurance, and you will pay for it later. Annually, hundreds of thousands of consumers are compensated by their insurance companies for stolen vehicles. That money has to come from somewhere and ultimately it's recouped in the form of higher rates. Frank Scafidi, Director of Public Affairs for the National Insurance Crime Bureau put it more succinctly when he told us, "The price for auto theft is paid really in the country by anyone who drives a car and who has insurance."??
Theft Recovery Systems??
All of these deterrents and common-sense moves are great, but a pro with the right tools can easily defeat them. Unscrupulous dealer personnel have been known to clone coded keys. Even if you do all the right things to protect yourself, there is still a chance your car can get stolen. As LoJack's Thompson points out, "If a professional thief wants your car, he's going to take your car."
??LoJack reports nearly 150,000 vehicles recovered in the U.S. since they went into business in the 1980s. OnStar, the most prevalent telematics system, available since 1996, reports over 50,000 stolen vehicle location activations in that time.
??Although just a fraction of motorists have recovery systems installed on their cars, the million cars pilfered every year should be a reminder that auto theft may be down, but it's certainly still a thriving trade.?