NICB issues top 10 cities for car theft: California and Vegas rank high

Listeners tuning to oldies radio stations aren't the only ones who are California Dreamin'. The 1965 Mama's and Papa's song could also be an anthem for car thieves.

In 2007, four out of the top 10 regions for car theft were in the Golden State, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB). This year Modesto, California topped the list, knocking the area of Las Vegas and Paradise, Nevada, to second place in the ranking of the most vehicle offenses per 1,000 residents.

The auto theft problem in Modesto has police stumped. The city of 208,107 is at the epicenter of the nation's subprime mortgage crisis, but the problems predate that, according to Sgt. Craig Gundlach, a department spokesman. "If we knew, then we wouldn't be up there at the top," he said, adding that the city is a "high intensity area for methamphetamine (use)."

According to the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, one reason why car theft is rampant there is because car owners do not take the necessary precautions. "Most car thieves are amateurs who steal cars for transportation, i.e., 'joy riding,'" the department says on its web site. "The Las Vegas Valley is no different than any other large metropolitan area, but with its added 32 million-plus tourists annually, the problem can be magnified."

To be sure, plenty of other regions face problems with car theft -- many of them on the West Coast. Rounding out the NICB's list for top 10 metropolitan statistical areas for vehicle theft are San Diego/Carlsbad/San Marcos, California; Stockton, California; San Francisco/Oakland/Fremont, California; Laredo, Texas; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Phoenix/Mesa/Scottsdale, Arizona; Stockton, California; Yakima, Washington; and Tucson, Arizona (AOL Money & Finance has a slideshow of the top 20 regions).

Overall though, the news is encouraging. Preliminary FBI data from 2007 shows this to be the fourth consecutive year registering fewer vehicle thefts. The 7.4% decline will be the largest single-year drop-off since 1999. The number of incidents has fallen 11% since 2000, according to the NICB.

It is unclear why the Western part of the U.S. remains a hotbed for vehicle theft. "The West is always overrepresented," said Frank Scafidi, a spokesman for the organization, in an interview. He offered a few theories why that could be the case.

For instance, the vast geographic stretches in the region are not easily accessible by public transportation. That means that there are plenty of cars. California alone has more than 30 million of them. Then there is the proximity of some of the affected areas to the Mexican border. "The cars and trucks that are stolen there are driven across the border," he said.

The Los Angeles area ranked 28th with 73,922 thefts in 2007, far exceeding the 5,358 reported in Modesto. The reason for LA's much lower ranking is that the rankings are calculated based on population. If there are more thefts among a smaller population, that indicates there is a problem requiring the attention of law enforcement since a greater percentage of the population is being affected.

Not Just The West. Larger cities further east continue to have their share of problems with car theft. The Houston area ranked 31st on NICB's list, five spots above 36th place and seven above the Charlotte, North Carolina region, which ranked 38th. The Philadelphia area ranked 110th, the New York City region was 224th and Boston and its suburbs were 225th.

The NICB recommends a three-tiered approach to combating car theft. The first layer is common sense -- removing the keys from the ignition, locking doors and closing windows and parking in well-lit areas. Warning devices such as alarms, wheel locks, theft-deterrent decals and immobilization devices represent the second layer. The third layer entails using devices that prevent thieves from bypassing the ignition and hot-wiring the vehicle. They include smart keys and disablers designed for starters, ignitions and fuel pumps.

"While there is overall great news in our new report, there is also room for concern," NICB President and Chief Executive Robert M. Bryant said in a press release. "Success against vehicle theft can be fleeting without an ongoing and adaptive program that couples the best in theft prevention/recovery technology with law enforcement operations. We must not be complacent in the wake of success."

This rings especially true for visitors to California and Las Vegas.

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