Vehicle thefts spiked last year — here's where and why

The West had highest rates, while Puerto Rico and Florida saw the biggest declines

Automobile thefts "saw a dramatic increase in 2020 versus 2019" according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s annual Hot Spots report. There were a wide range of reasons for the spike in stolen vehicles last year, according to David Glawe, president and CEO of the NICB, who cited "the pandemic, an economic downturn, law enforcement realignment, depleted social and schooling programs, and, in still too many cases, owner complacency."

Most stolen vehicles of 2020

With owners driving significantly less frequently than before, vehicles sat unattended during the pandemic months, sometimes even unlocked and with the keys inside, according to the report. In total, the NICB's report shows that thieves stole 880,595 vehicles in the United States in 2020. That figure represents a 10.9% rise over 2019 and means about one vehicle is stolen every 36 seconds in the U.S. The NCIB is a nonprofit organization that represents more than 1,200 property and casualty insurance companies and self-insured organizations.

The total number of thefts is alarming, but there are more details to be found when the data is analyzed by location. California, America's most populous state, leads in total thefts with 187,094. Up next is Texas with 93,521. Florida rounds out the top three with 44,940. According to the NICB, these three states alone account for 37% of all thefts nationally.

Broken down by metropolitan areas, Bakersfield, Calif., leads the nation with a theft rate of 905.41. The theft rate used by the NICB equals the total number of thefts per 100,000 residents. On a state-by-state basis (including the nation's capitol), Washington, D.C., leads the nation in theft rate, followed by Colorado and California. Interestingly, the the total number of vehicle thefts actually decreased in 10 states (including Puerto Rico).

Top 10 cities by theft rate:

  1. Bakersfield, California
  2. Yuba City, California
  3. Denver, Colorado
  4. Odessa, Texas
  5. San Francisco, California
  6. Albuquerque, New Mexico
  7. Pueblo, Colorado
  8. Billings, Montana
  9. St. Joseph, Missouri
  10. Tulsa, Oklahoma

Top 10 states by theft rate:

  1. Washington, D.C.
  2. Colorado
  3. California
  4. Missouri
  5. New Mexico
  6. Oregon
  7. Oklahoma
  8. Washington
  9. Nevada
  10. Kansas

Top 10 states and territories by decline in thefts:

  1. Puerto Rico
  2. Florida
  3. Georgia
  4. Alabama
  5. Nevada
  6. Maryland
  7. New Mexico
  8. Alaska
  9. New Jersey
  10. West Virginia

The NICB recommends the following four layers of protection to guard against vehicle theft:

  1. Common sense: Vehicle owners should always remove keys from the ignition, lock doors and windows, and park in well-lit areas.
  2. Warning devices: These include visible and audible alarms. Aftermarket alarms are available for all makes and models of cars. Visual devices include column collars, steering wheel locks, and brake locks.
  3. Immobilizing devices: The third layer of protection prevents thieves from bypassing the ignition and hot-wiring the vehicle. Some examples are smart keys; fuse cut-offs; kill switches; starter, ignition, and fuel pump disablers; and wireless ignition authentication.
  4. Tracking devices: Tracking devices are very effective in helping authorities recover stolen vehicles. Some systems combine GPS and wireless technologies to allow remote monitoring of a vehicle. If the vehicle is moved, the system will alert the owner, and the vehicle can be tracked via computer.

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