Thieves Stole 126,000 Cars in Two Years Because Keys Were In the Console

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One night, a couple kids showed up on Mike Bates’s driveway, opened his 2009 Kia Spectra, and drove off on a joyride to the neighboring town. This was in sleepy Cheshire, Connecticut, a suburb of 30,000 people, and all because he left a set of keys inside the glove box. It was too easy.

Mike found his car with minor damage and police were able to connect the theft to a wave of stolen cars reported over that weekend. But the innocent manner in which Mike and many car owners across the U.S. leave their keys in plain sight — whether under a mat or in the ignition itself to warm up the car on cold winter mornings — is a real problem. Between 2012 and 2014, there were 126,603 reported car thefts involving the actual car key, according to data from the National Insurance Crime Bureau, a nonprofit group of insurance companies that track vehicle theft. And it’s entirely preventable — no hot wiring or tow truck required.

Common to most car theft statistics, California had the most reported thefts with a car key at 19,597. It was followed by Texas (8796), Florida (7868), Michigan (7726), and Ohio (7452). Among metro areas, Las Vegas was the hot spot (6185), along with Detroit (4882), Atlanta (3234), Philadelphia (3141), and New York City and Newark (2917). A total of 11,199 cars — or nine percent of all recorded thefts — were never found.

Also of note: The later the model year, the less likely a car was to be stolen, with the biggest drop recorded for cars between 2002-2009. NICB attributes this to factory remote start systems which don’t require the key (and also lock the doors while the car is running). Unlike other theft reports it regularly releases during the year, the NICB didn’t release make and models in this study. For the entire data report, view the PDF here.

The suggestions are simple. Don’t leave your keys unattended unless you trust everyone around you, which is probably only when you’re inside your own home (assuming you actually like everyone living with you). Alternatively, hide those keys in a top secret location (which is what I do sometimes when press vehicles show up on my driveway). Make sure that valet is really a valet. And certainly don’t leave pets and children in the car while it’s running.

A week ago, a thief stole a running 2001 Corolla from a driveway in California with a sleeping eight-year-old boy in the backseat. The car was stolen moments after the father went inside to get his older son and a few belongings, according to the Sacramento Bee. Luckily, the thief was good enough to abandon the car after discovering the child, but all it takes is an easy opportunity. Make sure you don’t give anyone that satisfaction.

Clifford Atiyeh

Clifford Atiyeh

Clifford Atiyeh has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own. Based in Connecticut, he writes for BestRide, Car and Driver, The Boston Globe and other publications.