Stolen Vehicle

28 October 202010 min read

Due to the widespread adoption of ant-theft technology, it is more difficult for thieves to steal cars than ever before. However, motor vehicle theft still occurs in significant numbers.

In Australia, figures supplied by the National Motor Vehicle Theft Reduction Council show a car is stolen every 11 minutes.

Over the past five years, between 52,000 and 57,000 cars were stolen annually. Although this is still a high number, it is less than half the peak of 142,000 thefts reported in 2001.

The biggest contributor to the reduction in car thefts was the gradual introduction of engine immobilisers in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Ford and Holden were first to fit immobilisers in locally-made cars, in 1992. Some imported vehicles were also equipped with the technology, however initially it was largely restricted to luxury vehicles.

Immobilisers became compulsory on all cars sold in Australia from July 2001, which saw criminals target older vehicles that lacked the technology.

What is an immobiliser?

According to the National Motor Vehicle Theft Reduction Council, an engine immobiliser is an electronic device that isolates a car’s ignition system, fuel system, starter engine, or a combination of all three.

Because most modern vehicles control these systems via the engine management computer, immobilisers tend to be linked with this central control unit which is embedded in the car, usually under the dashboard or in the engine bay.

In most cases, an immobiliser will not allow a car to be started without receiving a matching, coded signal from a tiny transponder hidden inside the key fob.

This is one of the reasons it is so expensive to replace keys on modern cars. Cutting the metal blank is the easy part; the recoding can be time-consuming and expensive.

The transponder system is favoured by most car manufacturers is generally perceived to be the most impervious to theft.

However, technology now exists that can “clone” the transponder hidden inside a car key, so be sure to not leave your keys unattended where their unique signal can be copied electronically.

What does it mean when someone steals your car?

Car theft means someone has taken your car without permission, consent, or knowledge. Because it is next to impossible to “hot wire” modern cars, most opportunistic car thieves target older vehicles not equipped with immobilisers.

In extremely limited cases, thieves will use cloned key transponders to steal a modern car. Or if they have time and the car is parked out of view, they can turn up with their own key, ignition barrel, transponder unit, and engine management computer, replace all these components in the target vehicle, and drive it away.

However, this process can take up to half an hour which means there is a high risk of getting caught.

How do thieves steal cars?

The most common way thieves steal modern cars is to obtain the key, usually by breaking into someone’s house or workplace.

Figures from the National Motor Vehicle Theft Reduction Council estimate one in every 120 Australian homes fall victim to car criminals each year.

The latest figures show about 70 per cent of cars are stolen with their own keys, and half are taken from the home, including driveways, carports and garages.

Typically, offenders will sneak into homes, taking advantage of unlocked doors and windows.

“Often the homeowner is present and for this reason, we use the term ‘sneak thefts’ to describe these types of offences,” says the National Motor Vehicle Theft Reduction Council. “In most cases, thieves will actively avoid coming into contact with the homeowner. In fact, in 95 per cent of incidents there is no confrontation with the homeowner.”

In its most recent report, the National Motor Vehicle Theft Reduction Council said: “The proportion of immobilised vehicles stolen for short term use continues to rise, with 83 per cent of (cars) stolen fitted with an … immobiliser. This is indicative of the rising number of vehicles being stolen with their own keys.”

Are stolen cars usually found?

According to the latest data, about 80 per cent of stolen cars are recovered and 20 per cent disappear, suspected of being broken down for parts to avoid detection and increase the potential profit from the theft.

The majority of thefts are regarded as “opportunistic” and for short term purposes, which may include “joyriding, as a temporary means of transport, or for use in the commission of another crime”, says the National Motor Vehicle Theft Reduction Council.

The average age of the Top 10 stolen cars is 10 years or more. Although most cars are equipped with immobilisers, such vehicles are of low value and owners aren’t as careful with their keys.

Do police investigate stolen cars?

Police in all states and territories in Australia monitor car thefts. When a vehicle is stolen, owners are obliged to report the theft to police. At that point the owner is given a police event number or reference number.

Most police agencies largely view car crime as an insurance issue and tend not to send officers to investigate unless the vehicle has been used in another crime, or was stolen as the result of a home invasion or a sneak theft.

Police collate all car theft data and provide it to the National Motor Vehicle Theft Reduction Council, which monitors trends across the country and publishes annual figures.

What happens if I unknowingly buy a stolen car?

If you believe you may have unwittingly bought a stolen motor vehicle (or suspect the one you are looking to buy has been stolen) you can check with the federal government’s PPSR (Personal Property Securities Register), the successor to REVs (Register of Encumbered Vehicles).

According to the PPSR website it is the “national one-stop-shop for vehicle encumbrance (whether finance is owing or not), stolen and written-off status for consumers and the motor trades”.

Figures show that in the 2018/19 financial year the PPSR processed more than 9 million registration status checks, from car buyers and motor vehicle dealers checking trade-ins.

If the car you have bought comes up as stolen, you are obliged to report it to police. If you bought it from a private seller, you will need to provide that person’s details (usually on the registration transfer form). However, the seller’s identity will likely be fake or counterfeit.

If you buy a stolen car from a registered dealer, you have some recourse and the potential to get your money back.

However, if you can’t locate or identify the private seller of a stolen vehicle, it will be next to impossible to recover your money, and you will still be responsible for finance repayments.

What can you do if your car is stolen?

If your car is stolen, immediately notify police and your insurance company. Police may not attend unless another crime or an assault has been committed.

You will likely be referred to the police assistance line, who will take all necessary details and provide you with an event number or a reference number.

This number is important, because the insurance company will want to confirm the vehicle has been reported as stolen.

How does insurance handle a stolen car?

In most cases insurance companies won’t pay out a claim for a stolen car immediately, and they will investigate any suspicious claims.

Insurance companies prefer to wait for a period of time – before paying out a claim – in case the vehicle is recovered.

Depending on your insurance policy, you may be entitled to the use of a rental car until the claim is settled.

Most car theft claims are settled within a month, unless there are special or suspicious circumstances. Insurance companies will consider the method of theft and the type of car that has been stolen before determining the likelihood of the car being recovered.

The car may have been used for a joyride, as a means of transport, or for someone to commit another crime. In such cases, the motor vehicle is usually found afterwards.

If the car has been stolen by professional thieves and broken down for parts it will likely never be recovered.

Do you have to pay off a stolen car?

Yes. Insurance and finance are two separate contracts.

If your car is under finance – and then stolen and not recovered – the insurance company will pay the finance company what it is obliged to under your policy.

For example, if you bought a $20,000 vehicle under finance, owed just $5000 on the loan, and the car was worth $8000 as a used car, the insurance company would pay $5000 to the finance company, and the owner would be paid the balance ($3000) minus the insurance claim excess.

If the final finance repayment owing is higher than what the car is worth, then you are obliged to repay the finance company the gap, to reach a zero balance.

For example, if you borrowed $20,000 to buy a car and still owed $15,000 – but the car was valued by the insurance company at $8000 – then you would be obliged to repay the finance company the balance of $7000 owing, after the insurance company paid $8000 to the finance company.

As one popular insurance company’s Product Disclosure Statement (PDS) says: “When we pay you for a total loss claim, if a credit provider has a financial interest in your car then we will pay them what they are entitled to (up to your amount covered) and pay you any balance.”

If your car has a ‘new-for-old’ insurance policy, the insurer will replace the vehicle and the finance details will be transferred to the new vehicle – so the repayments will continue as per normal, rather than needing to establish a new policy.

How to prevent modern car theft

A few simple precautions can help you avoid being the victim of car theft. The most important element is to protect your car keys and keep them out of view, or anywhere they can be easily found during a home break-in.

The National Motor Vehicle Theft Reduction Council says: “If a thief can see your unattended keys, it is likely that he or she can figure out how to get hold of them. Lock doors and windows and ensure everyone in the household is doing the same thing.”

Authorities also advise to never hide a second set of keys anywhere in your car because “thieves know where to look”. For the same reason, you should also not store registration papers in a car, because with that document and your keys they can ‘legitimately’ sell your vehicle.

Experts also advise: “Don’t tag your keys with your name or address – use a mobile phone number or driver licence number instead (so police can locate you if the keys are found)”.

“If the car is at home but you are out, make sure you have all the keys with you,” says the theft reduction council.”

If you own an older car that is not equipped with an engine immobiliser, one can be fitted for about $220.