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How to Keep Your Car and Its Contents Secure

How to keep your car and its contents secure header

By Laura Newcomer on December 28, 2021 in Safe Driving

Cars offer us so much freedom. They help us visit loved ones, embrace new work opportunities, and go on all kinds of adventures (road trip, anyone?). With those privileges comes great responsibility.

Anyone who owns or operates a vehicle should be aware of two possibilities: car theft, in which the vehicle itself is stolen, and car break-ins, in which a person accesses the interior of a car and takes items from inside of it.

Those are scary prospects, but the good news is that a little effort paired with common sense can help protect you and your car from theft or break-in. Here’s why you should take your car’s security seriously — plus how to keep your vehicle and its contents secure.

Car Theft and Break-Ins by the Numbers

Car theft has actually been on the decline since 1991, but it's still a significant issue across the U.S. In 2019, the most recent year for the FBI's reporting, an estimated $6.4 billion was lost to motor vehicle theft. Motor vehicles were stolen at a rate of 219.9 per 100,000 people, and the average dollar loss per theft was $8,886. These thefts don't always result in shattered windows or bent door frames: Between 2016 and 2018, there were 229,339 cases of vehicle theft simply because people left keys in vehicles.

Also in 2019, the number of nationwide thefts from motor vehicle break-ins hit 1,121,083, with an average value of roughly $1,000. That breaks down to approximately 3,000 car break-ins across the country per day.

All of this helps explain why a survey from The Zebra, which included 1,500 homeowners and renters, found 20.2 percent of people have had their cars burglarized. This number varies a bit depending on several factors, including geography and the make and model of the car. For instance, the western half of the U.S. and urban centers have higher rates of car theft, certain vehicles are targeted more frequently by thieves (the Honda Civic is especially popular), and even certain days of the year impact the risk level (New Year's Day often sees a spike.).

Even as car thefts in general are on the decline, the theft of certain car parts is rising. For instance, catalytic converter thefts have risen sharply over the past few years, and repairs in the face of these thefts typically run thousands of dollars.

The bottom line? It's worth paying attention to car security so your property is less likely to join these statistics.

Tips to Prevent Car Theft

First things first: Since your car is probably one of your most valuable possessions, it’s important to protect the car itself from being stolen. Here are several popular methods for preventing car theft.

Door locks

This might seem like a no-brainer. Remember, however, that hundreds of thousands of vehicles are stolen each year with a key in them. This means an easy way to prevent car theft or break-ins is to simply… lock a car's doors every time you exit the vehicle.

Steering wheel locks

As the name suggests, these tools allow you to "lock" the steering wheel when you get out of your car. Even if someone is able to access the vehicle, odds are good they won't be able to drive away. Steering wheel locks are easy to use, store well in a vehicle without taking up much space, and serve as a visual theft deterrent, as a quick glance into the vehicle will alert would-be thieves that your car won’t be an easy target.

Lug nut locks and/or wheel clamps

Much like a steering wheel lock holds the steering wheel in place so it can't be used to drive away a car, lug nut locks and wheel clamps allow you to "lock" the car's wheels in place. This significantly decreases the chances that a thief would be able to drive away with the car. Wheel clamps are cumbersome, however, so these are generally considered a last resort in areas with high rates of vehicle theft.

Hood locks

Hood locks are especially useful in areas where car theft for parts is common. As the name suggests, they make it more challenging, if not impossible, for someone without the key to open the car’s hood. This prevents would-be thieves from gaining access to car parts.

GPS devices

Installing a GPS device in your vehicle won't prevent theft outright, but it will be hugely helpful if someone makes off with your car. You'll be able to track the vehicle's whereabouts, which will significantly increase the chances of vehicle recovery.

Vehicle immobilizer systems

Vehicle immobilizer systems may take several forms, including kill switches, smart keys, and wireless ignition authentication. In all cases, the premise is the same: These devices disable a vehicle when you aren’t using it, thereby making it all but impossible for thieves to make off with it. For instance, a kill switch might activate automatically as soon as you remove the key from the ignition, ensuring the car’s engine won’t start when you aren’t operating the vehicle. In most cases, you need the help of a mechanic to install one of these devices.

Specialized car alarms

There are a ton of car alarms on the market, and many newer vehicles come equipped with built-in alarms that sound when someone attempts to open a locked door. The loud sound alone can deter thieves, who won’t like the attention the noise draws. There are also many specialized car alarms on the market; these will most likely need to be installed by a mechanic. You could also consider investing in a dash cam with an intelligent parking mode — these devices automatically start recording as soon as they detect movement, which can serve as a theft deterrent.

Tips to Prevent Car Burglaries

You’ve taken steps to protect your vehicle from being stolen. That’s a great start! Next, adopt the following guidelines to significantly decrease the chances that someone will break into your vehicle and steal items from inside.

Always lock the vehicle.

Simple and effective, this is the most important strategy for securing your car against break-ins. Even if you're returning to the vehicle quickly (say, you’re just running into a gas station for a snack), lock the doors behind you. Bring the key with you whenever you leave your car unattended, and don’t leave a spare key in or on the vehicle.

Close your windows.

It won’t do much good to lock your vehicle if all the windows are open. Even a window that’s only open a few inches could allow someone to reach a hand into the car and unlock it from the inside. Before walking away from your car, make sure you’ve closed the windows, including the sunroof if you have one.

Don’t leave valuables in the vehicle.

“Out of sight, out of mind” applies here: A person is more likely to steal from a vehicle when they can plainly see valuables inside it. Remove the invitation by taking valuables with you when you exit the vehicle — think cell phones, purses, wallets, laptops, cash, luxury goods, and so on. If you must leave valuables in the car, stash them underneath a seat or in the trunk, but do this before you reach your destination. Some thieves monitor parking lots and observe people as they put valuables in their trunk, then swoop in once the driver walks away from their vehicle.

Park wisely.

Parking smart is a lot like real estate: It’s all about location, location, location. When parking at home, stash your car in the garage if you have one. If you don’t, a driveway is the next best option. When you’re out and about, try to park in highly trafficked, well-lit areas that are near your destination. Bonus points if you can park in a lot with an attendant or security cameras.

Tint your car windows.

Laws about window tinting vary by region, so this may not be an option for everyone. As long as it’s legal, tinting your windows can make it harder for would-be thieves to look inside the car and spot desirable items.

Maintain a clutter-free vehicle.

If you were an aspiring thief, which vehicle would catch your attention the most: the one with items strewn across all the seats and floors, or the one with nary an object in sight? Most likely, you’d opt for the first option as there’s a higher chance of finding something valuable amidst the clutter. It’s smart to keep your car neat and tidy because it’s less likely to attract people in search of valuables.


While car theft is on the decline, it still happens every day across the United States. Luckily, several common-sense strategies can help protect your vehicle from theft and break-ins. Adopt the guidelines above and practice them until they become habits. While it might take some effort, it’s better than the stress of losing a car or its contents.

Laura Newcomer is a consultant for Say Insurance. She is a writer, editor, and educator with multiple years of experience working in the environmental and personal wellness space. Formerly Senior Editor at the health site Greatist, Laura now lives and works in Pennsylvania. Her writing has been published on Washington Post, TIME Healthland, Greatist, DailyBurn, Lifehacker, and Business Insider, among others. An avid outdoorswoman, she can often be found hiking, kayaking, backpacking, and tending to her garden.