Fresno, Calif., is New Car-Theft Capital of U.S.

Fresno, Calif., has edged out Modesto, Calif., to gain the dubious distinction of being the car-theft capital of the country. California dominates the list, with eight of its metropolitan areas named among the top 10 "hot spots" for vehicle theft, according to a new report by the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB).

But the good news is car theft is slowing down in many cities and overall nationwide. Preliminary 2010 crime statistics published last month by the Federal Bureau of Investigation show a 7.2 percent drop in vehicle thefts from 2009's 794,616. If that estimate holds when the final statistics are published in the fall, 2010 will boast the lowest annual vehicle thefts since 1967, according to the NICB.

The bureau examines vehicle-theft data from the National Crime Information Center for each of the nation's metropolitan or micropolitan statistical areas (MSAs), which are designated by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. MSAs typically are larger than cities. The Fresno MSA, for example, includes all of Fresno County.

Magnets for car thieves

The Fresno, Modesto and Bakersfield-Delano MSAs, respectively, occupy the top three hot spots of the most recent ranking, which is based on the number of car thefts in 2010 per 100,000 area residents.

The West, particularly California, has dominated the top hot spots since at least 2000, says NICB spokesperson Frank Scafidi.

The only regions outside of California in the top 10 are Yakima and Spokane, Wash. Yakima, in the heart of central Washington's agricultural area, was No. 6 on last year's list, based on 2009 data, and No. 3 on the 2009 list, based on 2008 data. Spokane rose from No. 18 on last year's list and from No. 35 on the previous year's ranking. Scafidi couldn't speculate about why seemingly sleepy Yakima continues to rank high for vehicle theft, or what happened in Spokane to place it in the top 10 this year.

However, California's place on the list is a no-brainer.

"California has always had the most vehicle thefts and always will," Scafidi says. "The climate is more conducive to keeping cars in better shape, and there are many more vehicles in California [than other parts of the country]."

Car-theft rings go after the vehicles that will fetch the best prices. Older, beat-up cars aren't worth the effort. Organized rings employ thieves to steal vehicles, which are then sent to warehouses. The cars are given phony identification numbers and shipped off to Europe or driven across the border to Mexico and Central America.

"Another kind of enterprise steals vehicles to resell domestically through Craig's List or eBay, Scafidi says.

A stolen car's true history may come to light when an owner files a car insurance claim and the vehicle identification number matches another car in the system. Insurers then know one of the cars must be stolen and they alert law enforcement.

Other thieves steal cars to sell off parts for extra cash, or in some cases just to get from one point to another, Scafidi says.

New technology fights theft

The decrease in car theft overall is due to a variety of factors.

New laws with stiffer consequences for car theft as well as stronger enforcement efforts have helped crack down on the problem. Sting operations use "bait cars" equipped with hidden audio and video recording equipment and tracking devices.

Thieves who take the bait are caught on tape and then easily apprehended when officers use remote-control equipment to slow down and stop the specially equipped cars. They can even remotely lock the crooks inside, Scafidi says.

Another factor putting the brakes on car theft is factory-installed anti-theft technology in newer vehicles. And features such as electronic smart-key systems prevent unauthorized users from hot-wiring cars.

But the most cost-effective way to prevent theft of your own car is to use common sense, NICB says. Park in well-lighted areas, remove the keys from the ignition, roll up the windows and lock your vehicle.

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