In a year when many types of crime have risen in New York City, none has spiked more than car theft.
As of Dec. 18, over 13,000 cars had been stolen in the city this year. That's a 32% jump compared to 2021 and it's more than any year since 2006, according to NYPD complaint data.
“Auto thefts are a major concern for New Yorkers, especially in car-reliant areas and transportation deserts like the outer boroughs,” said Council Member Kamillah Hanks of Staten Island, who chairs the council’s public safety committee. Profitable car parts, insurance fraud, and joy riding all contribute to the rise in thefts, she added.
The NYPD’s data mimics a nationwide trend that shows vehicle thefts are at their highest levels since 2008, according to a November analysis by the National Insurance Crime Bureau, or NICB. The value of used cars and parts have increased significantly this year, contributing to part of the rise, according to Danielle Napinski, an NICB spokesperson.
Across the five boroughs, the number of car thefts varies greatly depending on the neighborhood, NYPD data shows. This year, the 43rd Precinct, which covers the southeast Bronx, has seen the most thefts out of any precinct in the city, with more than 520 cars stolen as of Dec. 11. Some areas where car thefts used to be low have seen the rate of the crime more than double, such as on Staten Island and in the Rockaways.
Hot spots for car thefts also tend to be in neighborhoods with high rates of car ownership, and where thieves can easily access a highway for a getaway, according to Christopher Herrmann, a former NYPD crime analyst.
Herrmann said the rise in car thefts is also due, in part, to the key fob technology many motor vehicles manufacturers now use to lock cars and start their engines. Without a physical key, some car owners tend to leave their key fobs in their cars during a quick errand, he said, leaving thieves able to easily jump in a car and drive off with it.
The NYPD recommends car owners close their windows, turn off their ignition, remove their keys, and lock their doors every time they get out of their car – even if it’s just for a minute. The department also offers a free program to etch the Vehicle Identification Number into a car's glass, called VIN etching, which works as a deterrent by making stolen cars traceable and therefore riskier to resell.
Some advanced thieves have also developed technology to copy key fobs, or use other digital tools to break into cars without any physical damage, Herrmann said.
“They're not easy to clone, but obviously the technology's out there,” he said, adding that in those cases, there’s little a car owner can do to protect themselves.
Jonathan Berenguer now believes professional thieves may have used a universal key fob or other advanced technology to steal his newly purchased 2020 Honda Accord in September. Berenguer had parked the car near Lehman College in the Bronx, where he works. One afternoon when he went to find it, it wasn’t there.
“I'm pressing my key fob – nothing is sounding,” Berenguer said. “I'm looking on the ground, there's no glass, there's no articles from my vehicle that were thrown out of the vehicle. And there's absolutely no sign, no evidence of my vehicle being broken into. It's just an empty, empty car space where my car was.”
Berenguer, who had saved for years to buy the car – his first car ever – called the police. Three months later, they still haven’t made an arrest or found the vehicle. He received a $3,600 payment from his insurance, he said – significantly less than the $8,000 he had put down for the car. But he’s come to terms with the loss, and doesn’t think police will ever find his vehicle.
“The journey goes from just in shock – like, wow, this really happened – to some sadness. Like, oh man, I don't have my vehicle. I worked hard for this,” Berenguer said. “That was my baby, my first car ever. So that was my pride and joy.
Now, he’s taking public transit and saving up for another car. He wants to buy the exact same one – but next time, he plans to park it in a garage.