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Car security: How to stop car break-ins before they happen

Whether you're at home or at a social outing, keeping your car secure can give you peace of mind. Here's how to do it.

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Nothing ruins a night out like coming back to your car to find its doors open and contents strewn across the seats and sidewalk -- other than returning to find your car missing entirely. It happens more than you think. More than 700,000 motor vehicles were reported stolen in the US in 2019, according to the FBI. The number of people who were victims of the theft of valuables inside their cars is harder to measure since it's often underreported -- but it's likely far more common than car theft.

By taking a few simple steps, though, you can protect your car and the belongings inside it from theft. Here's how.

Keep your car doors locked and windows closed

One of the simplest ways to protect your car is to lock the doors and close the windows anytime you aren't in the vehicle.

Property crimes are often crimes of opportunity: Open windows and unlocked doors can easily attract thieves, or give them opportunities to strike quickly and maintain a low profile. If would-be thieves can't quickly gain entry to your car, they'll often simply keep moving.

Secure your car keys

Having access to a key is the simplest way a thief can steal a vehicle -- during one month last year in Austin, Texas, for instance, 72% of the 322 cars stolen had their keys stashed nearby. 

First, never leave your keys in your vehicle, even if you're just running into a convenience store or another location for a minute or two. Second, be careful of where you keep your spare key. Storing your spare key on the outside or inside of your car can make it easy for thieves to steal your car. And thanks to the push-start features that new vehicles have, a thief wouldn't even have to find the key in the vehicle to drive away with it -- it would be enough that the key was there.

Park your car in secure areas

Be cautious about where you park your car. When possible, park your car in a secure garage that doesn't have public access -- this could be your own garage, or a company garage that requires a fob to access.

When you have to park outside, be selective about where you leave your car. First, look for well-lit areas that might deter a thief. Avoid remote areas where a thief could attempt to access your car without anyone seeing. Finally, especially in the case of parking lots, look for spots below a CCTV camera or other security device. Just the prospect of being caught on camera can be enough to discourage a thief.

Remove valuables from the car

Valuables that are visible within a vehicle can be attractive to would-be burglars. Avoid leaving your purse, phone or any other expensive items in your vehicle. Also avoid leaving shopping bags or other luggage in your car, as they signal the presence of something new or valuable, even if they're empty or just hold some groceries.

As an alternative, try leaving your belongings in the trunk of the car. If you have a cargo area in your truck or SUV, consider using a cargo cover, too.

2021 Toyota RAV4 TRD Off-Road
Craig Cole/Roadshow

Protect your car's wheels

You might be surprised to learn that your car's wheels can also be at risk of theft. In fact, one estimate found that roughly $1 million in tires are stolen each year. Why? They can be easy to remove quickly, and have high resale value, especially if they are expensive models.

Not only does protecting your car's wheels make it more difficult for a thief to steal the wheels themselves, but it can also prevent them from driving away with your vehicle. Devices that can be used to secure your car's wheels include lug nut locks and wheel clamps -- though the latter is probably only worth the inconvenience in instances where you're leaving your car unattended for a longer period of time, or if you are in a particularly high-crime area.

Activate your car alarm

Most cars today come with a built-in alarm system. When your alarm is triggered, often by someone opening the car door or attempting to turn the car on while the alarm is activated, the car makes a loud noise. This noise can often be enough to deter a thief, since they won't want the attention the alarm brings.

If your car doesn't have a built-in alarm or you don't feel that it's sufficient, you can also purchase an aftermarket alarm to keep your vehicle safe.

Install safety devices

In most cases, simple precautionary steps like locking your doors, closing your windows, and parking in safe locations will be enough to prevent thieves from breaking into or stealing your car. But for those who want extra protection, there are a few devices you can use.

First a vehicle immobilizer prevents a thief from starting without the key, which can prevent hot-wiring. Newer vehicles usually have these built-in, but you can buy aftermarket immobilizers for older vehicles.

Another device you can purchase is a steering wheel lock. This type of device attaches to your steering wheel and immobilizes it until it is unlocked. A steering wheel lock can discourage thieves, since it would be more work to steal your car, therefore creating more risk of getting caught.

Properly insure your vehicle

The seven tips above can help keep your vehicle and belongings safe and prevent thieves from driving away with your car. Unfortunately, few precautionary measures are entirely fail-proof, and it's important to have a backup plan. A comprehensive auto insurance policy will ensure that if your car is stolen or damaged, you'll be compensated for your loss.

Conclusion

Hundreds of thousands of people are victims of vehicle theft each year, and even more have their vehicles damaged or items stolen from their vehicles. Just a few simple precautionary measures can help deter thieves and protect your vehicle. To learn more about keeping your belongings safe, visit our library of home security articles, or read more about safely remote-starting your car.