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By Stephanie Mann

In this car-dependent country, auto thefts and robberies are likely to concern you and your neighbors. More than 1.6 million motor vehicles were stolen in the U.S. in 1991 according to the FBI � an average of 1 of every 117 registered motor vehicles.

While carjackings get more attention than auto thefts, they actually account for a very small percentage of stolen cars; barely 1% of the cars stolen in 1991 were taken through carjacking.

Preventing the theft of your car saves more than the cost and hassle of replacing the vehicle. It can save your life by helping you avoid a potentially violent situation. And it can also save someone else's life. Stolen cars driven by joyriding teenagers or fleeing criminals are more likely to be involved in accidents than other vehicles.

Auto Thefts

Auto theft�specifically referred to as "motor vehicle theft" by the FBI � involves stealing the car itself. When someone steals the contents within the car � your tape deck, or the briefcase you left in the trunk � police refer to that act as larceny, or plain theft.

Car thieves are often amateurs, under age 20, who take cars for joyriding, or to strip and sell the parts. Professionals who steal cars may sell them on the black market or in foreign countries, or they may dismantle stolen cars and sell the parts for several times the value of the whole car.

As with other types of stolen goods, trends in auto thefts seem to follow the legitimate market. For example, when classic Ford Mustangs are a hot item among collectors, they seem to become more popular with car thieves, too. You may deter some thieves simply by avoiding more popular car models, but no one can promise that a nondescript model will not be stolen.

Almost any type of car can be a target for thieves. Some vehicles are stolen so they can be used as getaway cars in the commission of other crimes. These thieves care more about a car's horsepower than its resale value.

Despite what you read about how easy it is for a professional to enter a locked car, the truth is that many thieves do not have to work too hard: More than half of stolen cars were left unlocked, and in a fifth of these, the keys were left inside the vehicle.

There's a lot you can do to prevent car theft:
Lock up. By simply locking up all doors, trunks, hatches and camper shells, you're way ahead of the game.
Install a car alarm or steering wheel lock. You can also purchase a variety of anti-theft devices ranging from steering wheel locks to the ever-popular car alarm. Check with your insurance agent or state auto club for the latest evaluations on these items. Consumer Reports magazine also rates them from time to time. Like home security systems, anti-theft devices can slow down many thieves, but others can quickly circumvent them by unhooking the alarm's wires or using a hacksaw to cut through a bar placed across the steering wheel. Rapidly developing technology is being used in the production of new products that can shut off the car's engine after a robber has driven the car a few miles or track the vehicle wherever it goes. Check with auto security companies and your mechanic to evaluate these systems.
Remove all items of value or keep them out of sight. Auto tape and CD players and cellular phones are obvious targets. Especially if you park in vulnerable areas, such as an alleyway at the baseball stadium or a poorly-lit airport parking lot, consider converting to removable models.

When leaving your car, take valuable items with you. Or, if nothing else, place them out of sight.
Packages, bags, sunglasses or even loose change can attract car thieves. Putting things in the trunk may deter the thief, but trunks are sometimes the target of indiscriminate thefts. Clear your car, trunk and glove compartment of any items that don't need to be there.

Record identifying information about your car. List the make, model and serial numbers of all auto stereos, C.B. radios, cellular phones or similar items. Store this list at home, with your other important documents or insurance papers. Engrave items such as cellular phones with your driver's license or state identification card number. Some experts advise etching identification numbers into windows and key parts, such as the engine block, to make the car less easy to re-sell if a thief takes it.
Park safely. If possible, park in well-lit areas where it is difficult for someone to tamper with your car without being noticed.
Make a police report as soon as possible if your car is stolen. Give police the license number, make, model, color and year of your car. Mention any special features such as phone or C.B. antenna, mag wheels, special visible equipment or obvious damage. By acting quickly, you increase the odds that police will recover your car.

Auto Robberies Or Carjackings

As in all other types of robbery, auto robberies � also called carjackings � involve one or more criminals taking your car from you by force. The robber may or may not use a weapon.
Carjackings can occur when you stop at a corner for a red light or when you go to a convenience store late at night. Carjackers, like other robbers, prefer to attack a person who is alone rather than with a carload of people. Common sense and the practical tips in this section can help you avoid carjackings.

Be alert. Use your self-defense tactics to protect yourself in and around your car. Have your keys out and ready to open the door. Visually scan the area around your car before approaching it. Pay attention to road conditions and stay alert as you drive. Do not daydream.
Lockup. Whenever you are in your car, keep your car doors locked and windows rolled up. This will help prevent an attacker from reaching into your car, opening the door and grabbing you.
Be careful where you park. If you stop at a pay phone or gas station, park in a well-lit area where an attendant or another driver can see you. If you park on the street, look around before you pull into your spot. Check to see if anyone suspicious is hanging around or if people are sitting in parked cars nearby. You can always drive around the block or find another parking space if you sense that something is not right.
Check inside and around your car. Before you get into your car, always glance into the back seat and down at the floors to see if someone is hiding there. If you often drive at night, keep a flashlight handy � perhaps on a key chain or in a coat pocket � to shine on your car before you get in. Also, glance underneath your car; carjackers have been known to hide there. Some newer cars are equipped with a remote sensor that unlocks doors and turns on lights in the car while you are still ten feet away from it. This device will help you spot an unwanted guest in or near your car.
Don't fall for a "bump-and-run." Some carjackers use the tactic of hitting a car from behind at a relatively slow speed. When the driver of the front car gets out to check the damage, the robbers steal the car.

The best response to this situation will depend both on the circumstances and your own intuition. If you are in bumper-to-bumper traffic in broad daylight, and someone hits your car, you might decide it is safe to get out of your car because a robber wouldn't be able to go anywhere even if he tried. But if you are alone and it's late at night, you might stick your arm out the window and point to a nearby gas station, police station or some other well-lit public place and signal for the other driver to follow you there. When you get to a safer place, you can then exchange phone numbers for insurance purposes. Some drivers roll down their window an inch and wait for the driver who caused the accident to approach. By exchanging information through the crack in the window, you remain somewhat protected.

Although you're not supposed to leave the scene of an accident, if you feel you are in danger, keep driving. If circumstances or your intuition suggest that you are in danger, drive to the nearest police or highway patrol station, or to a safe public phone so you can call police. Better to pay for repairing your back bumper than to lose your life to a carjacker.
Some car robbers swoop in front of a person's moving car and force them to slam on the brakes, causing a minor accident. Again, use your common sense and judgment and the self-protective tactics mentioned for the bump-and-run tactic mentioned above.
Recognizing the danger of carjackings, some states are more lenient on people who move their cars after a rear-ender. Check with your local police department or auto club for updated information on legislation in your state.

Exercise caution if your car breaks down. When you have car trouble and someone stops to help you, you do not have to open your door or get out of your car. Rather, roll your window down just enough to ask the person to call the local police or highway patrol. If you belong to an auto club, you can ask that they call the club for you.

Make a report � not a stop � if you see someone else with car trouble. It's best not to stop unless it's clearly safe to do so. Note the model and color of the car, as well as the license plate number, and drive to the nearest safe phone and call the local police or highway patrol to report the problem. Even if you drive past an apparent accident, use caution. Staging fake accidents to lure unsuspecting victims has been used by crooks since the days of the Model-T.

Avoid confrontations with other drivers. Do not risk your life by arguing with another driver. Not only are cars lethal weapons, but you have no way of knowing if the other driver is armed. Tragedies have resulted from senseless arguments over turn signals and other minor issues. If another driver is rude or insulting, continue driving safely � don't let yourself be drawn into an altercation.

Don't let a suspicious car follow you home. If you are being followed, don't drive directly home. Drive, instead, to the nearest police or fire station, hospital emergency entrance, all-night restaurant or other safe place. Call police to let them know your suspicions and, if possible, give a description of the driver and car that was following you.

Keep your garage or driveway secure. Install an automatic garage door opener and motion sensor lights at your home. When you pull into your driveway, the lights should go on and illuminate anyone lurking nearby. The automatic door opener could prevent a car robber from attacking you when you get out to open the garage door. Once in the garage, look around before you get out of your car, to make sure no one entered the garage after you. If your garage is not attached to your house, be sure the bushes are trimmed and no other obstructions block your view of the area between the spot where you park and your door or entryway.

Give up your car. If confronted by a robber, police advise that you do not resist or argue with the person, especially if the person is armed. Give up your car and get away.

Proper Car Maintenance Helps Prevent Crime

If your car is well-maintained, it is less likely to break down on the road, which makes you less vulnerable to car-related crime. Keep your gas tank at least one quarter full. Store an extra quart of oil in the trunk and keep a good spare tire for emergencies. Also store in the trunk an emergency kit with flares, basic tools, a blanket, matches and an umbrella or rain poncho. You may also want to invest in a portable device for repairing or inflating tires in an emergency.
Make sure your tires (including spares) have the correct air pressure and are in good condition.