- The pandemic has helped fuel the biggest jump in auto thefts in more than a decade, experts say.
- Higher prices for new and used cars are making vehicles even more valuable to thieves.
- Surprisingly, many vehicles are stolen after the driver leaves the keys inside.
You can blame the Covid pandemic for yet another thing: a surge in auto thefts.
Vehicle thefts in the United States jumped 9% last year from a year earlier to 873,000, the highest number in more than a decade, according to statistics from the National Insurance Crime Bureau provided to CNBC's "American Greed."
The pandemic created a "perfect storm" of conditions for auto thefts to increase, said NICB President and CEO David Glawe.
"We have a lot of disenfranchised youth that are unemployed, and outreach programs are shut down or limited due to Covid," he said. "There is frustration and anger in society. We are also seeing public safety resource limitations and withdrawal of proactive policing due to budget constraints."
Vehicles are also especially valuable these days. Because of tight supply and heavy post-pandemic demand, used car prices are up nearly 30% from a year ago.
The increase in thefts began slowly, coinciding with the start of the pandemic in March 2020. They accelerated by last June as the first wave of Covid lockdowns subsided and a second wave loomed. By November, monthly thefts were running 18% ahead of 2019.
The biggest jump was in Chicago, which saw a 134% increase in vehicle thefts last year, the NICB said. The Chicago Police Department said it also recorded a doubling in the number of carjackings.
"This has been a year that has presented numerous challenges to law enforcement," Chicago Police Superintendent David Brown said in a statement in January announcing the figures.
Numbers leveled off a bit as pandemic restrictions have subsided, but Chicago police data released this month show thefts are still 9% higher than a year ago.
Elsewhere, thefts surged 68% in New York City and 50% in Washington, D.C., the NICB said.
Criminals have long understood how lucrative trafficking in vehicles can be. One extreme example of a different kind of vehicle crime, in 2014, involved serial fraudster and internet influencer T. R. Wright III, who portrayed himself as an arms dealer and an international man of mystery.
"All the Instagram photos were of this individual with fancy cars, guns, high-end clothes, high-end vehicles, yachts, jets, traveling all over the world," U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent James Reed told "American Greed."
Wright, 36, admitted he took part in a conspiracy in which he purchased a 2008 Lamborghini Gallardo with a salvage title for the bargain price of $76,000, deliberately crashed it into a ditch, and collected nearly $170,000 in insurance proceeds.
Wright pleaded guilty in 2018 to two conspiracy counts in what prosecutors said was a wide-ranging scheme involving not just vehicles, but also boats and airplanes. Wright, who is serving a five-year sentence, claimed to "American Greed" that he brought in even more money than prosecutors contend.
"It depends on how you do the math, but if you had to go on complete losses, let's say somewhere around 30 to 40 million dollars," Wright said.
But much smaller-time crooks can also make a killing in the vehicle market in a different way, especially with today's high prices. There is a ready market for most cars and trucks, as well as their parts.
While Wright purchased his Lamborghini through a company he controlled, criminals are finding it remarkably easy to simply steal vehicles. The NICB says more than 10% of the vehicles stolen in 2019 — the last year for which complete figures are available — had the keys left inside.
Because nearly all cases lead to an insurance claim, every policyholder suffers in the form of higher premiums. That's why the NICB is urging vehicle owners to protect themselves, especially when crooks are so active.
Here are some tips, several of which are common sense:
- Take your keys out of the ignition when you park the vehicle, or if your car has a remote key fob, keep it with you even if you are just exiting your vehicle briefly.
- Lock your doors and windows, and park in a well-lighted area.
- Don't leave valuables or anything else that might draw thieves' interest inside your car. That includes your garage door opener.
- Consider keeping a picture of your vehicle registration on your phone rather than leaving the actual document in your glove compartment.
- Think about installing a car alarm as well as a kill switch that can immobilize a stolen vehicle.
- Consider getting a GPS tracker that can help authorities find your vehicle.
You may not own a six-figure Italian sports car, but just about anything you drive is a hot commodity these days.
See how social media star T.R. Wright III drove a brazen fraud scheme to fame and fortune, and hear his own words from prison. Watch an ALL NEW episode of "American Greed," Monday, June 21, at 10 p.m. ET/PT, only on CNBC.