8 Safety Measures To Prevent Thieves From Targeting Your Car

In this article: There are many ways a thief can use your car to steal from you without driving off with it. We explore simple ways to make your vehicle less attractive to thieves and scammers.

by Andrea Norris-McKnight

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It’s unfortunate, but you must continually take steps to protect yourself and your money from thieves and scammers. This includes preventing thieves from targeting your car. Sure, a thief could steal your car, but it’s more likely an unscrupulous person could steal from you in other ways via your vehicle.

Here are some common ways the things inside your car or your habits could make you a target and safety measures that may help protect you, your car and your wallet.

1. Always lock your car as soon as you get inside.

If you’re out running errands and someone wants to steal your phone, purse or wallet, they may follow you through the parking lot and wait until you get back into your car and shut the door before approaching you. There is less chance a passer-by will witness the act.

As you sit behind the wheel looking over a receipt or checking your phone, if your car door isn’t locked, someone can open it before you realize they’ve even approached your car. It takes mere seconds for them to grab your purse off the seat or demand your wallet.

2. Never leave your engine running while your car is unattended.

Leaving your car unlocked with the engine running makes it very easy for someone to jump in and drive off. And we’ve all done it, whether to cool or warm the temperature in the car or simply to run back into the house or a store to quickly grab something.

If the car is on, don’t go far. A thief is less likely to steal it if they can see someone standing near it.

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3. Don’t leave your house key with the auto repair shop or a valet.

When you get your oil changed, your car repaired, or use valet service, you typically must provide your car key. Never hand over your entire set of keys. Only give them the one key they need — your car key.

An unscrupulous employee could take your house key and get your home address from paperwork in your glove box or, if at a repair facility, look it up in the company database.

Instead of handing over all your keys, just give them the key they need, which is the one to your car.

4. Leave no record of your home address in your car.

Many of us keep certain things in our car for convenience — the garage door opener, car registration and our home address programmed into the car’s navigation system.

If someone steals your car, they have the information they need to quickly locate your home and the garage door opener for easier access to your house.

If you must keep your home address programmed into the navigation system, don’t save it under “Home.” Perhaps use a fake business name. Consider installing a garage door opener that requires a key fob so the opener stays with your keys rather than your car.

As for your car registration, keep it in your wallet or check with your local police department whether you can black out your home address on your registration. Some allow this as a safety precaution, but some may not.

5. Take precautions with your license plate and registration stickers.

Unfortunately, if a thief wants your license plate, it’s effortless for them to remove the screws and take it or even put a different plate on your car so you don’t initially notice the theft. They could then use your plate on another vehicle for illegal activities.

To minimize the chance of having your plate stolen, you can buy security screws for your plate that require a special tool for removal. They are inexpensive — just make sure you keep the tool in a safe place where you can find it if you need to remove your plate.

When thieves need a renewal sticker for an expired license plate, they don’t buy a new one through the DMV. They just peel one off another car, leaving the owner to pay a replacement fee to get a new one.

So, how can you deter thieves from swiping your registration sticker?

Before adhering a new sticker to your license plate, remove any old stickers and thoroughly clean the plate’s surface. Once the new sticker is in place, use a razor blade to gently score it so that it will come off in pieces if someone tries to remove it.

This trick won’t guarantee someone won’t peel off your sticker, but it will make it more likely a thief will choose someone else’s sticker to steal.

6. Use caution in public parking areas.

If you have any valuables in your car, such as a briefcase or packages, you hopefully tuck them out of sight before locking and leaving your vehicle. A thief is likelier to break into a car where they can see something worth stealing.

You might be tempted to move things into your trunk before leaving your car, but this might not be the best idea. If a thief is hanging out in a parking garage or lot looking for a good target, they might notice you moving things into your truck and pop it open as soon as you leave the area.

7. Stay alert at the gas station.

Gas station customers have become a popular target for thieves. You’ve undoubtedly heard about the fake gas skimmers scammers install on gas station pumps to capture unsuspecting customers’ credit card information as they swipe their cards at the pumps.

You can read more about the FBI’s recommendations for spotting and avoiding card skimmers here. One simple FBI recommendation is always to try to use a pump that is in direct view of an attendant. Thieves tend to stay away from pumps in plain view of a store employee. And paying with cash, although inconvenient, is always one surefire way to avoid card skimmers.

Another new scam to watch for at the gas station when using a credit card is “pump switching.” With this scam, a stranger offers to pump your gas but doesn’t hang the nozzle after filling your car to end the transaction. After you leave, they continue pumping gas on your dime into another vehicle.

If someone approaches you, offering to pump your gas, politely decline. If they get pushy about it, alert an employee. And always wait for your transaction to complete before getting in your car and driving away.

You can learn more about how pump switching works here.

8. Report and share auto crimes.

If car thieves have targeted your neighborhood, whether you were targeted or not, remain vigilant. It’s not uncommon for thieves to target the same area or neighborhood multiple times.

Report all incidents to law enforcement and inform your neighbors so they can take precautions to deter thieves. Many neighborhoods use message boards such as NextDoor, where residents can post and read about instances of crime. You should also notify the Homeowner’s Association if your neighborhood has one.

Reviewed January 2024

About the Author

Andrea Norris-McKnight took over as the editor of The Dollar Stretcher and After 50 Finances after working for the previous editor for almost 15 years. She has also written for Money.com, GOBankingRates.com, HavenLife.com and The Sacramento Bee.

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