What a Steal! Anti-Theft Devices Zap Car Insurance Rates

Auto theft rates have fallen to vintage levels, but the reasons for the decline are thoroughly modern.

Improved technology designed to thwart thieves led to an estimated 7.2% drop in auto thefts in 2010, compared to the 794,616 stolen in 2009, according to the FBI.

If the figure holds when totals are finalized later this year, it will mean the lowest number of thefts since 1967, says National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) spokesperson Frank Scafidi.

These days, "more theft protection bells and whistles come from the manufacturer," Scafidi says.

But even if your vehicle is older than Justin Bieber, you can take precautions to make it less of a target while potentially saving on your car insurance rates.

Car insurance discounts

There's no set discount for what you can save on auto insurance by installing various types of anti-theft devices. But having these watchdogs installed "definitely does make a difference" in your search for affordable car insurance, says Alicia Charles-St. Juste, senior assistant vice president of sales and client services at Amica.

Only nine states - Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island - require auto insurers to provide discounts on your comprehensive coverage rates if an auto is equipped with an anti-theft device. Even in states where discounts for anti-theft devices aren't mandated, some car insurance companies still voluntarily offer them.

Discounts often run about 15% to 20% for passive devices that activate automatically when you lock your vehicle, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC). Combining an anti-theft device with a vehicle-recovery system, such as LoJack or OnStar, can net you at least a 25% discount in Massachusetts.

Layers of protection

In 2009, thieves stole nearly $5.2 billion worth of vehicles, with an average loss of $6,505, according to the FBI.

For the 2007 to 2009 model years, Cadillac Escalades had the most expensive insurance losses, with an average payout of $11,934 per claim, according to the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI).

Russ Rader, spokesperson for the HLDI, says the Escalade is a big draw "because of the bling factor." It's a vehicle that's driven by celebrities and athletes, so it has "pop culture appeal."

Other favorites of high-end thieves are luxurious pickups and SUVs, such as Hummers, as well as Corvettes. But more modest vehicles also are targets. In 2010, the most stolen vehicles were the 1994 Honda Accord and the 1995 Honda Civic, according to the NICB.

The NICB urges drivers to use "layers of protection" to prevent such thefts. They range from common-sense approaches like not leaving your keys in the car to high-end solutions like auto tracking systems.

Several companies that provide protection offer price breaks through a discount code on the NICB website.

One old-fashioned solution is The Club. "It's relatively inexpensive, but it works," Scafidi says. "It actually will deter a certain level of thief," because it takes time to remove, which can attract attention. An alarm system also works well as a deterrent, Scafidi says.

An immobilizing device is a more sophisticated solution. It prevents thieves from hot-wiring your car, especially if it's older. (Newer cars generally are impossible to hot-wire.) The NICB works with Ravelco, which produces an immobilizing device that lists for about $470. When the device is removed, there's no way to start your car, even if you use your key.

The final layer of protection is a tracking device, which emits a signal to police or monitors a stolen vehicle through GPS or radio frequencies. The NICB works with LoJack, with a list price of $695 or $995, depending on the model.

Finding your stolen vehicle quickly can prevent thieves from chopping it up and selling it for parts, says Rebecca Doran, senior corporate underwriter at Amica.

Charles-St. Juste says some new vehicles also have the vehicle identification number (VIN) laser imprinted on certain parts, making it tougher for chop shops to sell stolen parts.

New cars also can be equipped with smart keys, which makes it impossible to start the vehicle if the key isn't present, Scafidi says.

But no system is completely foolproof. One method of stealing a car is to load the vehicle onto a flat-bed truck and haul it away.

"Professional thieves who want a vehicle are going to find ways to get it," Rader says.

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