Criminals Get 44,828 Free Rides as Drivers Leave Keys Behind

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All those sophisticated theft-prevention devices won’t save your car if you leave the keys inside, a lesson that more Americans are learning the hard way.

U.S. car thefts with keys left inside jumped 14 percent from 2012 to 2014, reaching 44,828 last year, according to a study issued Monday by the National Insurance Crime Bureau. The actual number is probably higher because some people don’t admit their carelessness to police or their insurer, the NICB said.

“Stealing a vehicle is very difficult with today’s anti-theft technology and leaving the keys in the vehicle is an open invitation for the opportunistic car thief,” NICB Chief Executive Officer Joe Wehrle said in a statement.

Criminals are otherwise having a harder time stealing cars because of devices like smart keys and fuel pump disablers designed to prevent hot wiring of vehicles. About 660,000 cars were stolen in the U.S. last year, according to NICB, which uses data from the FBI. That’s an 8.5 percent decline since 2012.

The NICB advised drivers to stay with their cars when giving the vehicles time to warm up on winter days, and to bring the keys along even on short trips to convenience stores. Some people who leave keys behind may be hoping to have their car stolen to collect the insurance, the group said.

Las Vegas, Detroit

Car thieves nabbed the most vehicles with keys in the metro areas of Las Vegas, Detroit, and Atlanta from 2012 to 2014, according to the NICB. None of those cities cracked the top 10 in overall auto theft in 2013.

California led the nation in thefts with keys during the three-year period, with more than 19,000. The cars tend to be older models, according to the NICB, possibly because those vehicles can’t be warmed up remotely.

The largest U.S. auto insurer is State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., followed by the Geico unit at Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. The NICB, based in Des Plaines, Illinois, is an industry group dedicated to detecting and preventing fraud and auto theft.

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