To deter thieves, employ layers of protection

Theft-deterrent systems fall into two general categories: active and passive.

Active devices, as the name implies, require owners to take some action, such as setting the alarm, installing a locking device, and so on.

Passive systems require no action; they engage automatically once the keys are removed or the doors are locked. Engine immobilizers are a popular passive device.

Experts like Kim Hazelbaker, senior vice president of the Highway Loss Data Institute, and Ed Sparkman, an agent for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, agree that theft-deterrent devices don't guarantee your car's security, but they do decrease the chances for theft. Thieves spotting such devices probably will move on to easier-to-steal vehicles that aren't protected.

To that end, the NICB recommends what it calls ''layered protection." The rationale is that the more layers of protection on your vehicle, the more difficult it is to steal.

The first layer
It's simple common sense: Remove your keys from the ignition, lock your doors and close your windows, and park in safe, well-lit areas.

The second layer
The next layer of protection is a visible or audible device, which alerts thieves that your vehicle is protected.

Other second-layer favorites include:

  • Etching the vehicle identification number on all the car windows and on major parts of the vehicle, which thieves know makes it easier for the stolen car to be traced. This can be an inexpensive, do-it-yourself project; the number can be painted or written with an indelible marker under the engine hood, on the trunk lid, or on the battery. Do-it-yourself kits can be bought starting at $20.

  • A brake-and-steering-wheel lock system that secures the steering wheel to the brake pedal and immobilizes the controls.

  • A steering-wheel lock that consists of a steel rod that attaches to the wheel and hinders steering. Winner International has marketed its well-known lock, the Club, since 1986. Blockit Lockit Systems offers a menacing device called the Wrap. Prices range from about $40 to $75 for introductory models.

  • An ignition and steering-column collar, which is made up of a lockable steel shield that encases the steering column to prevent access to the ignition. Most column covers are custom-made by aftermarket suppliers and usually apply to a certain make or model. Prices start at just over $30.

    The third layer
    Immobilizing devices comprise this layer of protection.

    Tools such as starter disablers, fuse cutoffs, and kill switches prevent thieves from bypassing the ignition and hot-wiring the vehicle.

    Other systems feature smart keys, which carry computer chips or coded radio frequencies. The engine can't be started without the exact key.

    Vehicles with engine immobilizers generally are stolen by hauling them away on flatbed trucks, a visible act that takes more time.

    The top layer
    Tracking devices comprise the top layer of protection.

    These devices are systems that help recover stolen vehicles. Such systems as General Motors' OnStar communication service and LoJack allow police to track the vehicle if it is stolen.

    OnStar is available on most GM models -- and on several other brands such as Acura, Audi, Isuzu, and Volkswagen -- as a standard feature or as part of an equipment group or convenience package. OnStar packages start at $695.

    LoJack installs a transmitter the size of a chalkboard eraser in one of 20 potential spots on a car. The location is kept secret so thieves can't easily disarm it. The transmitter starts working only when police, who receive a stolen-car report, activate it by remote control.

    This system also costs about $695 and is installed on new vehicles by a dealer or can be purchased directly from Massachusetts-based LoJack.

    LoJack is available currently in 22 states and the District of Columbia, but the Insurance Information Institute reports that it offers more than a 90 percent recovery rate on stolen vehicles.

    If you choose to install OnStar, LoJack, or another tracking system, be sure to apply warning decals to your vehicle. By making them aware of these tracking devices, thieves may think twice before stealing your car.

    What you drive should help determine the kind of protection you need. Heavier layers of protection should be considered if you drive a car that's a favorite among thieves, such as the Cadillac Escalade EXT or Nissan Maxima.

    Tempting targets

    More than 1.2 million motor vehicles were reported stolen in 2004 in the United States.* The top 10 targets of thieves were:

    1.'95 Honda Civic

    2.'89 Toyota Camry

    3.'91 Honda Accord

    4.'94 Dodge Caravan

    5.'94 Chevrolet 1500

    6.'97 Ford F-150

    7.'03 Dodge Ram

    8.'90 Acura Integra

    9.'88 Toyota Pickup

    10.'91 Nissan Sentra

    *Except Hawaii.

    SOURCE: National Insurance Crime Bureau (2004 data) via