Yet another unfortunate byproduct of COVID-19 was a reported surge in vehicle thefts last year, fueled by the plethora of cars left parked due to work-at-home recommendations and select shutdowns to help curtail the spread of COVID-19. According to the annual “Hot Spots” report issued by the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), U.S. crooks purloined 880,595 cars, trucks, and SUVs during 2020, which represents a 10.9 percent increase over 2019, with one vehicle illegally driven off an average of once every 36 seconds.
With far fewer motorists taking to the streets and highways for much of last year and leaving their vehicles unattended for days at a time, criminals were able to purposefully pick their targets like shoppers perusing the racks at Target. This is especially true among city dwellers that tended to leave their cars parked on the streets for says and weeks on end, walking to stores and other essential businesses instead of driving.
Suburbanites and those who remained mobile throughout the pandemic weren’t spared, however, especially the disturbingly high number of vehicle owners who reported their rides missing simply because their owners either left the keys in the ignition or had the keyless-entry key fob sitting in a bin or cup holder while parked.
“Auto thefts saw a dramatic increase in 2020 versus 2019 in part due to the pandemic, an economic downturn, law enforcement realignment, depleted social and schooling programs, and, in still too many cases, owner complacency,” says David Glawe, president and CEO of the NICB.
Auto thefts jumped the most last year in Colorado, with 29,162 thefts reported in 2020, over 21,299 registered in 2019—that represents a whopping 37 increase. California leads all U.S. states in total thefts at 187,094 taken during 2020, with Bakersfield, CA topping all urban areas at a theft rate of 905.41 vehicles stolen per 100,000 residents. We’re featuring lists of the states and localities suffering the most car thefts in the lists below.
While one might think flashy new cars might be the models most frequently targeted by criminals, for the most part the opposite is the case. The NICB notes that older vehicles, especially those that originally sold in large numbers, continue to be most frequently preferred by thieves. They include well-worn versions of the Honda Accord and Civic, Toyota Camry and Corolla, and the Chevrolet Silverado, Ford F-150, GMC Sierra, and Dodge/Ram full-size pickup trucks. They’re most often driven or towed to so-called chop shops where key components are harvested and sold to unscrupulous auto parts dealers and/or to unsuspecting consumers via the Internet.
At that, law enforcement agencies in large metropolitan areas have recorded an upsurge in thefts of high-performance cars like the Dodge Challenger and Charger, especially those packing the 700-plus horsepower Hellcat and Redeye supercharged V8 versions. Earlier this year, parent company Stellantis issued flash-downloadable security upgrades for those models that impair drivability if the system detects a break-in.
Often, key components can be harvested right where a vehicle is parked, and quickly enough to go unnoticed even in daylight. The most common among these easy-money thefts is the catalytic converter, which is an especially valuable part of a car or truck’s emissions control system that uses costly precious metals like platinum, palladium, and rhodium to convert an engine’s environmentally hazardous exhaust into less harmful gasses. As of December 2020, rhodium was valued at $14,500 per ounce, palladium at $2,336 per ounce, and platinum going for $1,061 per ounce. Typically, recyclers will pay $50 to $250 for a “recycled” catalytic converter.
According to NICB’s Operations, Intelligence and Analytics study of reported thefts, there were 108 catalytic reported converter thefts per month on average in 2018, 282 average monthly thefts reported in 2019, and 1,203 average thefts reported per month in 2020. The top five states for catalytic converter thefts last year were California, Texas, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Illinois.
“Removing a catalytic converter takes only minutes using some basic, readily-available, battery-operated tools from a local hardware store,” added Glawe. “And for the vehicle owner, it’s costly due to the loss of work, finding and paying for alternate transportation and then paying anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 to get your vehicle fixed.”
It’s always prudent to install an anti-theft device to add a layer of vehicular security, especially one that protects the catalytic converter. Aside from that, the usual cautions apply, namely to park in your garage at home and in a well-lit and well-populated spot out on public, and to always lock the car and take the keys with you, no matter for how short a period it may take to pay for gas or run into the post office.
Here’s the list of the NICB’s top 10 metropolitan “hot spots” for vehicle thefts relative to population size during 2020, with the number of vehicles stolen per 100,000 residents noted in parenthesis:
- Bakersfield, CA (905.41)
- Yuba City, CA (724.46)
- Denver, CO (705.80)
- Odessa, TX (624.28)
- San Francisco, CA (655.20)
- Albuquerque, NM (613.75)
- Pueblo, CO (602.39)
- Billings, MT (564.79)
- St. Joseph, MO (564.64)
- Tulsa, OK (551.76)
And here’s which states reported the most car thefts per 100,000 residents last year, according to the NICB:
- Washington, DC (562.98)
- Colorado (502.12)
- California (475.24)
- Missouri (453.63)
- New Mexico (426.79)
- Oregon (385.08)
- Oklahoma (371.28)
- Washington (386,46)
- Nevada (365.84)
- Kansas (325.28)
You can read the NICB’s full report here.