U.S. Car Thefts Have First Increase Since 2003

Car Thefts Climb First Time Since 2003 as California Leads
Auto thefts rose 1.3 percent last year from 715,373 in 2011, according to preliminary data released today by the National Insurance Crime Bureau. Photographer: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post via Getty Images

U.S. auto thefts probably rose in 2012 after eight straight years of declines as criminals took advantage of California’s budget cuts and reduced police forces, an insurance-industry group said.

Thefts rose 1.3 percent last year from 715,373 in 2011, according to preliminary data released today by the National Insurance Crime Bureau. Thefts fell about 3 percent in 2011 from a year earlier to the lowest levels since at least 1967, the NICB said, citing data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

“There were budget crunches in a lot of areas,” Frank Scafidi, a spokesman for the Des Plaines, Illinois-based NICB, said in a telephone interview. “There have been layoffs of police. There’s been less focus on non-violent crimes, because there’s been more focus, as there should be, on violent crimes and crimes against people.”

Modesto, California, including Stanislaus County, placed No. 1 in the ranking of auto thefts per capita in 2012. Thefts in Modesto increased by 29 percent from 2011 to about 817 cars per 100,000 people, according to the NICB. Modesto Police Sergeant Rick Applegate estimated that staffing levels in the city have shrunk by 30 percent over the past four years.

“You can only do so much with so many people,” Applegate said in a telephone interview. “The auto-theft countywide task force that we participate in has been devastated because our staffing levels have been cut throughout the state.”

The New York City area, including northern New Jersey and Long Island, had 26,311 thefts last year, or about 133 per 100,000 people. The Midland, Michigan, region had the fewest thefts per capita.

California Cities

Eight of the 10 metropolitan areas with the highest 2012 theft rates are in California, including No. 2 Fresno, No. 3 Bakersfield and No. 4 Stockton.

“California rates are going up because there’s no resources and no law enforcement,” John Abounader, executive director at the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators, said in a phone interview. “Criminals know where the resources are and they go where they’re not.”

California has more vehicles than other states, access to ports and borders for smuggling, and mild weather that keeps cars in good shape, Scafidi said. Drug use also drives thefts, he said.

“There’s a notorious methamphetamine problem in this state,” Scafidi said. “Where you have a lot of drug problems, police will tell you, you have a lot of property crimes. It’s like peanut butter and jelly.”

Northeast, Midwest

Stockton, which filed for bankruptcy last year, is using social media to combat thefts, according to Joe Silva, public information officer at the city’s police department.

“Our community has stepped up to the plate and has been submitting tips through Facebook and Twitter in regards to who is out committing these types of crimes,” Silva said.

The West, including Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming, saw a 10.6 percent increase in vehicle thefts from 2011, the NICB said. The Midwest, Northeast and South reported reductions of 3.1, 7.9 and 2.9 percent respectively.

(Corrects last name of Modesto police sergeant in fourth and fifth paragraph of story published yesterday.)