Art of dissuading car thieves in New York


NEW YORK — Every 24 seconds, a motor vehicle is stolen in the United States. Contrary to popular belief, thieves target not only expensive cars but also, most frequently, those in the mid-price range.

Cars are stolen usually for the resale value of their parts, which become particularly valuable when they are no longer manufactured or are too difficult or too expensive to obtain.

Stolen cars transported across international borders have become a common, almost inevitable consequence of globalization.

Recently, in Albania, I was amazed at the large number of Mercedes Benz cars in Tirana, the capital city, until a friend explained to me that many of them were stolen cars that came from Germany. A similar sight can be observed in Central American countries, where many stolen cars stolen up north in the U.S. end up.

When I told policeman recently that I lived in Soho, downtown Manhattan, and drove one a leading Japanese model, he said, “You are a prime candidate to have your car stolen.”

He explained that Japanese cars get a good resale price and that downtown Manhattan is near the Holland tunnel. This makes it easy for robbers to flee to New Jersey, out of reach of the New York police. From New Jersey, the car may be transported to other states. Since then, I’ve decided to use a parking garage rather than leave my car in the street, even though garage fees in New York can run several hundred dollars a month.

Recent research from the Netherlands found that thieves are less likely to steal brightly colored cars because they have a lower resale value. They can also be more easily detected. Of 109 pink cars in the study, none were stolen.

In the past, if thieves didn’t steal a car, they often might break a window and take the portable radio or CD player. For a long time, parking a car in the street could be annoying, particularly when one was liable to find a broken window and the car’s interior vandalized.

My wife had this unpleasant experience when she left the car in a suburban parking lot. The car was stolen by adolescents for a joy ride, and when the police returned it, the interior had been practically destroyed — probably by the police looking for hidden drugs.

A physician friend of mine thought he had solved this problem. When he parked his car in the street, he used to put up a note in the window reading, “RADIO ALREADY STOLEN, NO CD PLAYER, NO VALUABLES INSIDE.”

For a long time his car was safe and my friend was happy at having fooled would-be robbers. One day, though, he came back to his car and found a note in the back window: “NOW, NO SPARE TIRE.”

Cesar Chelala, M.D. and Ph.D., is a writer on human rights and foreign policy issues.