Motor vehicle theft may have decreased significantly in the last few decades. But in some cities, cars are still stolen at alarmingly high rates.

Motor vehicle thefts in the United States have decreased significantly in the past twenty years, from 1.7 million cars stolen in 1991, down 55% to 773,139 in 2018, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB). On average, 2,118 vehicles are stolen each day in the United States. Despite this decrease in the theft rate over the past few decades, automobile theft is still a pervasive problem that disproportionately affects some cities over others.

The most commonly targeted cars are older models. (For a list of the most popular stolen cars, based on model and year, see this report by Insurify.) Older cars are easier for thieves to steal, as their anti-theft technology tends to be less advanced than the anti-theft technology in the latest cars. Most stolen cars are taken to chop shops, where they are dismantled and then sold for parts. Alternatively, high-end or high-demand vehicles are sent overseas to fulfill requests by foreign buyers.

Anyone who has had their car stolen can attest that it is a stressful and costly experience. In the interest of public safety and awareness, this study also concludes with practical measures on preventing auto theft. Details on steps each city has taken to reduce incidences of motor vehicle theft or property crime, where available, can be found under our list of the 20 cities with the highest motor vehicle theft rates.

Insights

  • National average: On average, 215 out of every 100,000 people have their car stolen each year, according to data compiled from the NICB.
  • Regional trends: Almost all cities with the highest car theft rates are located in the western half of the United States. None of the eastern cities made it to the top of this list, likely because they have fewer motor vehicle drivers relative to the total population.
  • Carjacking in California: A whopping eight out of the top twenty metropolitan statistical areas (MSA’s) this year are located in California. With almost half of the cities with the most car thefts located in California, it’s not all golden in the Golden State. According to the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), rates of automotive theft in California have skyrocketed following the implementation of the state’s historic public safety realignment. Since 2011, many jails have been forced to release inmates early, to which the PPIC attributes successive spikes in automotive thefts each year.

Methodology

Insurify’s data scientists compiled data from the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) on auto theft rates by metropolitan area. From this data, they found the MSA’s with the highest incidence of auto thefts per 100,000 people. They also calculated the national average of motor vehicle thefts per 100,000 people. From this number, Insurify’s data scientists determined how much more often car thefts occurred in the top 20 cities, compared to the national average. Data on the population and property crime rate for each of the top 20 cities was compiled from the FBI’s database on crime statistics.

20. Topeka, Kansas

  • Population: 232,183
  • Motor vehicle theft per 100k: 468.63 (2.18 times higher than the national average)
  • Property crime rate per 100k: 3,606.2

This year, the capital of Kansas comes in 20th place, with 468.63 vehicle thefts per 100,000 people. Policymakers and law enforcement alike are committed to decreasing the overall crime rate in this city: a project, called Momentum 2022, is set to implement actionable measures to increase public safety by improving surveillance and neighborhood watch programs.

19. Joplin, Missouri

  • Population: 50,657 (U.S. Census Bureau)
  • Motor vehicle theft per 100k: 473.44 (2.21 times higher than the national average)
  • Property crime rate per 100k: Not reported by the FBI

Once the hiding place of the notorious robber duo Bonnie and Clyde almost a century ago, present-day Joplin Missouri is home to some thieving residents of its own. This city has one of the highest motor vehicle theft rates in the country and the highest property crime rate on this list. Although there are no current projects on reducing property crime in Joplin, its police department recently hosted a workshop in conjunction with the National Criminal Enforcement Association (NCEA) on criminal interdiction training to hone the skills of its police officers.

18. San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward Metropolitan Statistical Area, California

  • Population: 4,747,868
  • Motor vehicle theft per 100k: 487.66 (2.28 times higher than the national average)
  • Property crime rate per 100k: 3,283.5

Within this MSA, Oakland has historically been associated with violent crime, and in recent years the community’s focus has primarily been on reducing violent crime rates, which reached an all-time high between 2011 and 2012, with Operation Ceasefire. San Francisco, on the other hand, has recently launched Operation Tangled Web, a task force aiming to reduce auto theft rates throughout the city.

17. Yuba City, California

  • Population: 173,299
  • Motor vehicle theft per 100k: 495.66 (2.31 times higher than the national average)
  • Property crime rate per 100k: 2,510.7

Although Yuba City still ranks among the top 20 MSAs for automotive thefts, its ranking has dropped from ninth place to seventeenth. Impressively, rates of car theft in Yuba City have dropped by a whopping 18% since last year.

16. Merced, California

  • Population: 2,489,355
  • Motor vehicle theft per 100k: 498.24 (2.35 times higher than the national average)
  • Property crime rate per 100k: 2,377.5

This city in Northern California is no stranger to high rates of vehicle theft; although it was not listed among the top 20 cities last year, it ranked in the top 10 cities in 2017. With a rate of almost 500 vehicles stolen per 100k people and a high property crime rate, residents and visitors of Merced are well-advised to take extra precautions when it comes to securing their vehicle and other valuables.

15. Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro Metropolitan Statistical Area, Oregon-Washington

  • Population: 2,489,355
  • Motor vehicle theft per 100k: 503.06 (2.35 times higher than the national average)
  • Property crime rate per 100k: 2,870.0

With over 500 motor vehicle thefts per 100k people, this MSA brings us to the fifteen cities in the nation with the highest rates of car thefts. To combat this issue, the city of Portland recently closed a loophole in its laws that would make it easier for prosecutors to prove someone is guilty of stealing a car. Evidence such as a driver possessing tools associated with car break-ins, or driving a car with the wrong key, can now be used to prove an individual is guilty of car theft.

14. Tulsa, Oklahoma

  • Population: 994,764
  • Motor vehicle theft per 100k: 505.03 (2.36 times higher than the national average)
  • Property crime rate per 100k: 3,319.8

Tulsa maintains its place in the top twenty cities this year. The car theft rate in Tulsa has dropped slightly since last year from 538.61 thefts per 100k people, which represents a decrease of five percent. Primarily, the police force in Tulsa has engaged with its residents in programs designed to foster positive relationships between civilians and police, to reduce the overall crime rate in the city.

13. Denver-Aurora-Lakewood Metropolitan Statistical Area, Colorado

  • Population: Not reported by the FBI
  • Motor vehicle theft per 100k: 506.24 (2.36 times higher than the national average)
  • Property crime rate per 100k: Not reported by the FBI

This MSA has experienced its fair share of car thefts in the past year – and in the year before. In response to such high rates of car theft, Denver police gave away hundreds of free anti-theft devices, at about $100 apiece, to owners of the most commonly stolen vehicles. It remains to be seen whether this creative effort reduces rates of stolen cars in 2019, but we’re hopeful.

12. Billings, Montana

  • Population: 181,264
  • Motor vehicle theft per 100k: 520.75 (2.43 times higher than the national average)
  • Property crime rate per 100k: 3,508.7

The only city from Montana to rank among the top twenty, Billings has by far the highest rates of car theft in the state. According to the Billings Police Department, most cars in Billings are stolen to be used in drug nexus crimes, rather than to be taken to chop shops and sold for parts. Last year, Billings created a special unit designed to combat property crime (including motor vehicle theft) in the city. As a result, motor vehicle theft has dropped by seven percent since last year.

11. Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, California Metropolitan Statistical Area

  • Population: 4,595,416
  • Motor vehicle theft per 100k: 521.66 (2.43 times higher than the national average)
  • Property crime rate per 100k: 2,445.4

With a car theft rate more than two times the national average, theft in this MSA is on the rise since last year, when it did not make the top twenty. There are no programs specifically targeting motor vehicle theft or property crime. Still, this MSA’s police departments have been working hard to reduce rates, with Riverside’s police department citing a 75-85% recovery of all vehicles stolen.

10. St. Joseph Metropolitan Statistical Area, Missouri-Kansas

  • Population: 126,765
  • Motor vehicle theft per 100k: 532.85 (2.49 times higher than the national average)
  • Property crime rate per 100k: 3,459.9

Since last year, rates of motor vehicle theft have dropped significantly, from 749.99 thefts per 100k. Although the rate of motor vehicle theft in this MSA is still 2.5 times higher than the national average, this impressive twenty-nine percent decrease in motor vehicle theft rates brings this MSA out of fifth place last year to tenth. Given that drug network crimes have been associated with car thefts, a contributing factor could be the county’s crackdown on narcotics in recent years.

9. Vallejo-Fairfield Metropolitan Statistical Area, California

  • Population: 446,656
  • Motor vehicle theft per 100k: 538.28 (2.51 times higher than the national average)
  • Property crime rate per 100k: 2,662.9

One of the multiple californian cities on this list, Vallejo has 2.5 times the national rate of auto thefts per 100,000 people. As of November this year, there are not currently any programs directed at decreasing rates of motor vehicle theft in the city. Nonetheless, Vallejo’s police force has been working hard to apprehend the city’s car burglars. In August, they busted a creative auto burglar who was using a high-tech tool to interfere with the locking signals sent by contactless car keys.

8. Wichita, Kansas

  • Population: 638,135
  • Motor vehicle theft per 100k: 550.02 (2.57 times higher than the national average)
  • Property crime rate per 100k: 4,232.0

The largest city in Kansas by population, Wichita has the highest rates of automotive thefts in the state and the eighth highest in the country. Within the past year, law enforcement in this city has focused, in particular, on reducing overall rates of property and violent crime by focusing on “drugs, guns, gangs, and the habitual offenders who are driving these numbers up,” according to Wichita’s chief of police.

7. Stockton-Lodi Metropolitan Statistical Area, California

  • Population: 748,303
  • Motor vehicle theft per 100k: 569.58 (2.66 times higher than the national average)
  • Property crime rate per 100k: 2,956.4

With 569.58 motor vehicle thefts per 100,000 people, California’s Stockton-Lodi metropolitan area has 2.7 times more car thefts per 100k people than the national average. Like Wichita, this MSA area is beset by high rates of violent crime. As a result, the primary focus of their police forces has been on reducing violent crime, through Operation RVN (reducing violence in neighborhoods). Operation RVN was implemented earlier this year.

6. Redding, California

  • Population: 178,909
  • Motor vehicle theft per 100k: 575.98 (2.69 times higher than the national average)
  • Property crime rate per 100k: 2,867.9

To reduce the overall crime rate in Redding, law enforcement officials, policymakers, and local businesses have partnered to implement the program Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED). CPTED is a research-backed initiative that manipulates the town’s physical environment to make crime-ridden areas less enticing to criminals. Increasing light levels is one simple yet effective example.

5. Modesto, California

  • Population: 548,464
  • Motor vehicle theft per 100k: 623.48 (2.91 times higher than the national average)
  • Property crime rate per 100k: 2,789.6

Modesto’s car theft rates are anything but modest. An automotive theft rate almost three times as high as the national average should be a warning to drivers who, according to the city’s police, have become complacent. Their analysis of car thefts in 2018 revealed that almost a quarter were preventable, with drivers either leaving their keys in the vehicle or having had them stolen or otherwise unaccounted for.

4. Pueblo, Colorado

  • Population: 167,573
  • Motor vehicle theft per 100k: 701.37 (3.27 times higher than the national average)
  • Property crime rate per 100k: 4,387.3

Although Pueblo has moved from third in 2018 down to fourth in the rankings this year, this city has the highest rates of motor vehicle theft in Colorado, with over 700 motor vehicle thefts per 100,000 people. Although there is no city-specific program preventing car theft, the statewide coalition of law enforcement agencies and insurance partners Coloradans Against Auto Theft (CAAT) works to combat auto theft in Colorado by increasing public awareness and education about the issue.

3. Bakersfield, California

  • Population: 893,851
  • Motor vehicle theft per 100k: 752.48 (3.51 times higher than the national average)
  • Property crime rate per 100k: 3,386.2

Out of the seven other californian MSAs on this list, Bakersfield has by far the highest rates of auto theft, with over 750 auto thefts per 100,000 people. The threat of automotive theft is all too known to the citizens, legislators, and law enforcement of this city. Last year in an effort similar to that of Denver, Colorado, police in Bakersfield gave out 255 anti-theft devices to owners of the most commonly stolen vehicles in the city.

2. Anchorage, Alaska

  • Population: 309,917
  • Motor vehicle theft per 100k: 773.4 (3.61 times higher than the national average)
  • Property crime rate per 100k: 5,016.8

Anchorage Alaska maintains its position in the rankings this year as the city with the second-highest rates of auto theft in the nation with almost 775 motor vehicle thefts per 100,000 people. 3009 vehicles were stolen in 2018; if spread evenly across the year, more than eight automotive thefts would occur each day. Property crime in Anchorage is also the highest out of all twenty cities on this list, at over 5000 incidences per 100,000 people.

1. Albuquerque, New Mexico

  • Population: 915,468
  • Motor vehicle theft per 100k: 780.19 (3.64 times higher than the national average)
  • Property crime rate per 100k: 4,526.6

In keeping with its ranking last year, Albuquerque emerges once again as the city with the highest rates of auto theft in the United States, which are 3.64 times higher than the national average. To address this issue, Albuquerque’s increased the number of auto theft detectives by 17%, to bait and apprehend a greater number of would-be car thieves.

Advice and Best Practices

How to prevent car theft

  • GPS tracking: If your car is stolen, having a GPS tracking device inside the vehicle can prevent thieves from disappearing with it. Many tracking devices are also incredibly cost-effective; the most affordable will only set you back between $50 and $150. Compared to the headache and cost of replacing a stolen vehicle, these devices pay for themselves many times over.
  • Never leave your car running and unattended: If you think that leaving the engine on while running into the store for a few minutes is not enough time for a thief to swipe your car, think again. Most car thieves are seasoned professionals. For them, breaking into a car takes only a matter of seconds.
  • Install an anti-theft system: Most cars manufactured recently have decent security systems, but they may not be enough to deter a thief. Installing anti-theft systems, such as kill switches, steering wheel locks, or brake locks, can significantly decrease the likelihood your car being stolen. Insurers may also offer discounts on purchases of devices like these.

How to make sure you aren’t buying a stolen car

  • Do your research: The simplest thing you can do when considering a used car is to do your research on the seller. Double-check whether the dealer or individual seller is reputable.
  • Check the VIN: As an extra precaution, you can also find the VIN (vehicle identification number), usually visible through the dashboard on the driver’s side of the vehicle, or inside the driver door. Use the NICB’s VinCheck tool to verify that this number hasn’t been reported lost or stolen.
  • Evidence of car cloning or other tampering: Check to make sure the VIN label should be securely attached to your car, with no loose corners, as this may be a sign the VIN number has been tampered with. Some car thieves engage in the sophisticated but lucrative process of car cloning. Car cloning involves removing the VIN number from the stolen vehicle and installing a new VIN number in its place. New VIN numbers must be legitimate and come from a similar make and model.

If you have questions or comments about this article, please contact insights@insurify.com.