Why a Ford pickup isn’t the most-stolen vehicle in America

If you've read any auto news over the past 24 hours, you likely saw at least a headline proclaiming that the Ford F-250 pickup had replaced the Cadillac Escalade as the most stolen vehicle on American streets. It's an honor that seems misplaced: Ford sells a lot of F-250 pickups every year, but it sells far more Mustangs, Fusions and Focuses, and no medium-duty pickup truck ranks among the top 20 vehicles sold every month. Why would thieves target it over more common, easier-to-steal models?

In fact, they don't. The F-250 isn't close to being the vehicle swiped most by U.S. car thieves, who may be making a comeback after several years of declines. Here's the real story.

The reports all stem from the same study by the Highway Loss Data Institute, part of the Insurance Institue for Highway Safety, the research arm of the insurance industry. Its numbers showed that the four-wheel-drive F-250 crew cab had the highest losses per insured vehicle year for 2010-2012 models, averaging $7,060 per claim. That average displaced the Escalade, which had topped the rankings since 2003.

To its credit, the HLDI never says its data shows the F-250 gets taken whole from its owners more than other vehicles. Because it only has insurance claim payments, the HLDI can't say what happened in any particular case — and clearly states that its numbers don't distinguish between thefts of entire vehicles and thefts of property from inside or outside one, which helps explain why five of the top 10 vehicles in the HLDI list are pickups. Given that the F-250 comes with an anti-theft ignition immobilizer and weighs more than three tons, moving one against the owner's wishes takes some skill and a large tow truck — but the recent re-growth of the construction business means more such trucks are back on the road with expensive tools in their beds.

Since it can't track individual thefts, and is limited to newer models, the HLDI study runs counter to other studies that find thieves hitting cars far more than trucks or SUVs. Lojack, the vehicle tracking service, finds in its annual study that of the top 10 vehicles reported stolen to its call centers, the top five are Japanese cars, with the Honda Accord and Civic leading in 2012. (Ford pickups don't make the list.)

But the most complete figures come from another part of the insurance industry. The National Insurance Crime Bureau tracks stolen or damaged cars by serial numbers to prevent fraud and consumer abuse; every year it pores over all vehicles reported stolen to law enforcement agencies to bolster its database. The new NICB list will come out in a few weeks, but last year's report showed the specific models most likely to be taken, led by the 1994 Honda Accord and 1998 Honda Civic, with the 2006 Ford F-150 third. Overall, the list was dominated by aging, once-popular models that lack modern anti-theft devices.

Yet another NICB report in June flagged that car thieves may be on a comeback. Preliminary FBI figures for 2012 showed a 1.2 percent rise in car theft for 2012, and the NICB's "hot spots" study of the cities with the highest car-theft rates suggests much of that comes from California alone, with eight of the worst 10 cities for such crimes in the Golden State. Part of that may come from thieves who have the technology to counterfeit the electronic codes many modern car keys transmit, but there's other factors at play — from California's ports and proximity to Mexico for offloading stolen vehicles to changes in its "three strikes" law that lessened potential jail sentences for some car thieves.

As the NICB's video with the Albuquerque police show, thieves still go after a variety of models, and even cover their faces in case they're burglarizing a bait car. Ford pickup owners shouldn't start clamping traffic boots on their trucks at night — but anyone who wants to hold onto their vehicle and their possessions should give some thought to how secure they really are.

Top photo: Andrew Huff via Flickr

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