Who's asking: James Lamb, Virginia Beach, VA
My brother James asks this question on behalf of our brother Ed, whose 2000 Dodge Intrepid was stolen this weekend in Washington, DC. Sorry, Ed.
Automobile thefts are crimes of opportunity, and the number of auto thefts in the U.S. actually dropped between 2005 and 2006 -- presumably because it's just getting harder and harder to steal new cars. My own Beetle, for example, has a built-in alarm and a computer chip in the ignition key; the alarm doesn't work any more (I probably shouldn't admit that), but you can't start the car without that computer chip. A 2000 Dodge Intrepid, unfortunately, is an old-fashioned car that's relatively easy to break into and hot-wire.
Overall, the rate of car theft in the U.S. was 1 in 190 in 2003, the most recent year available. Pretty high odds, compared to winning the lottery or getting struck by lightning.
Auto thefts are becoming more common in the western states than on the East coast, and port and border cities are among the highest-crime areas. Central California is a particularly bad region, too; of the top 10 cities on the auto theft rate, five are in central California: Stockton, Visalia/Porterville, Modesto, Sacramento, Fresno. (John Schramm, if you stop by, care to comment on why this would be?) Washington, DC doesn't even make the top ten list any more. Neither does New York City.
For the criminal, auto theft is low-risk work. Only 13% of car theft cases were cleared by arrests in 2004. Recovery rate on stolen cars is somewhere around two-thirds -- 65% of cars stolen in 2002 were eventually recovered -- and if a stolen car's recovered, it's most likely (for obvious reasons) to be found on a Monday.
So maybe you'll get lucky, Ed. I'll buy you a Club for your next birthday. (And before you ask, yes -- the Club is easy to get around for a professional car thief, but because most car thefts are crimes of opportunity, anything that slows down the process acts as a deterrent.)