By Jean Reynolds

Police trainees should have a thorough understanding of issues related to motor vehicle theft including types of thefts, strategies that thieves employ, and warning signs that a theft may be in progress. Advancements in technology are making newer cars more difficult to steal and helping law enforcement agencies recover vehicles from thieves.

Because motor vehicle theft is such a widespread problem, police trainees should have a thorough understanding of strategies that thieves use to steal cars. According to data from the FBI, nearly 700,000 vehicles were stolen across the nation in 2013, and over $4.1 billion was lost as a result. Thanks to excellent police work, the recovery rate for stolen cars is 50%.

Police trainees should know some basic terminology associated with motor vehicle thefts:

  • joyride is a short-term vehicle theft for fun or thrills. Often the offenders are juveniles who abandon the vehicle shortly after the theft.
  • chop shop is an illegal business that dismantles stolen vehicles and sells the parts on the black market.
  • slim jim is a toolkit that slips between the car window and car frame and opens the door lock.
  • VIN cloning (also called retagging) involves replacing the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) of a stolen car with a legal VIN.
  • Dump and watch refers to parking a stolen vehicle in a public place for 24 hours to see if police are looking for it. If the car doesn’t show up in a law enforcement database, thieves feel confident about returning and taking the car away.
  • Carjacking refers to the taking of a vehicle by force or threat of force. Because assault is involved, carjacking is the most serious form of vehicle theft.
  • Hotwiring involves breaking into a parked vehicle and tampering with the wiring in order to complete a circuit and start the engine.
  • TWOC is an acronym for Taken Without Owner’s Consent. The thief (often an adolescent or employee) has permission to drive the vehicle in certain circumstances. TWOC happens when the person with access makes unauthorized use of the vehicle.
  • Opportunistic theft can happen in a number of ways. A thief notices keys lying on the seat of an empty car or realizes that the car is idling. Sometimes cars for sale are stolen during a test drive: The thief drives away instead of returning the car, or hands in a fake key and uses the real key later to steal the car.
  • Fraudulent theft occurs when the thief uses a false identity or a counterfeit cashier’s check to obtain a car from a seller.

Police trainees should also be familiar with technology that prevents thefts and helps law enforcement recover stolen vehicles. Some newer cars have GPS systems that can trace the movements and location of a stolen car. Some anti-theft systems can send a signal that prevents a thief from restarting a stolen car. Even cars without advanced anti-theft systems may have recessed locks and loud alarms that frustrate a potential thief.

Thanks to technology, many police departments can employ advanced methods of finding stolen cars. Automatic number plate recognition (ANPR) is a mass surveillance method that matches license plates against a database of stolen vehicles. maintains a watch list of all the vehicles reported stolen by their owners.

Of course the best weapon against motor vehicle theft is an alert police officer. Accidental bumping of parked cars is a popular tactic for thieves to find out if a car has an active alarm system. A person crouching near a parked car might be searching for hidden keys (many people hide extra keys in a magnetic box behind a bumper). A suspect carrying shaved keys or a slim jim should be checked out for possible car theft.

Certain kinds of damage can also be a sign of a possible vehicle theft. One example is a new car with extensive scratches and dents: Perhaps the driver is a thief who doesn’t know how to drive the car. Police officers should also pay attention to vehicles with broken windows or damage around door and trunk locks that might provide entry points for a determined thief.

Thanks to teamwork between car manufacturers, technology experts, and law enforcement, crime databases are reporting a decline in motor vehicle thefts. Emerging trends in car features and crime patterns suggest an even brighter future for car owners and police officers—and dimmer prospects for criminals who hope to raise large quantities of cash by stealing cars.