A car theft epidemic in Los Angeles accelerated last year. The city recorded 25,400 stolen vehicles, the highest annual count since the Los Angeles Police Department began making its data publicly available in 2010.
Car thefts have always been a problem in the city, and the figure has bounced around. There were 19,143 vehicles stolen in 2017, but just 15,724 two years later.
Thefts shifted into high gear with the onset of the pandemic. Initially thieves targeted cars sitting on the street for extended periods as many people reduced their driving. But even as vehicular activity picked back up, thefts kept rising. The 2022 count is a 4.3% increase over the previous year, and a staggering 61.5% higher than in 2019.
According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, an organization that works to combat and prevent insurance crime, there is no single root cause for the increase, which has been seen in cities across the country.
“The pandemic led to an economic downturn, the value of used cars is up substantially right now, there are supply chain issues, and some cars that are stolen are later used in more violent crimes,” said NICB Public Affairs Specialist Danielle Naspinski.
Other reasons for the rise include unemployment and low wages, inflation’s impact on the economy, higher costs of living and insufficient security, according to the Insurance Information Institute.
“Insurance companies include the costs of fraud and theft in insurance rates over time as this impacts the loss costs paid out. We all pay for auto theft,” said Janet Ruiz, the organization’s Strategic Communications Director.
In the entire 2010s, there was not a single month with more than 2,000 auto thefts. In 2022, that figure was surpassed nine times, according to LAPD data.
However, there may be a ray of hope, with a decline in activity toward the end of the year. November brought 1,921 auto thefts, and there were 1,887 in December.
Social media problem
One contributing factor to the 2022 figures was the “Kia Challenge.” A series of videos demonstrating how to use a USB port to override the locking mechanism and start the engine of many Kia and Hyundai models went viral. It began in Milwaukee and caught on nationwide.
Insurance industry groups are seeking to get such videos removed from YouTube. The NICB last week stated that police departments across the country have had to contend with a surge of thefts of Kias and Hyundais.
“Posting videos such as these harms American consumers by increasing auto thefts and increasing premiums,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, in a statement released by the NICB. “It is time for practices such as these to stop.”
Yet more than those makes are going missing. Commonly stolen vehicles, according to the NICB’s “Hot Wheels Report,” which tracks annual car thefts across the country, are Chevrolet full-size pick-up trucks and Ford pick-ups.
Thieves notoriously target older vehicle models with key-based ignition systems, including Hondas from 1995-2010 and Kias from 2010-2021.
Billions in losses
The situation in Los Angeles is also playing out across the country. Vehicle thefts nationwide in 2022 were the highest they have been since 2008, according to the NICB.
During the first three quarters of 2022, more than 745,000 cars were stolen in the United States. That represents an estimated $6.6 billion worth of vehicle theft, according to NICB data.
In Los Angeles, LAPD Chief Michel Moore has said that many stolen cars are recovered within days of going missing, and often in the same neighborhoods. He has said this indicates vehicles are often taken for transportation, as opposed to being sold overseas or dismantled for parts.
Downtown in 2022 recorded 1,371 stolen car reports, the highest number of any neighborhood in the city for the second year in a row. Other frequently targeted communities in 2022 included Boyle Heights (861 reports) and Westlake (763).
Law enforcement and insurance groups are united in the effort to prevent vehicle theft. However, deterrents such as steering-wheel locks and alarms are not always enough.
“While a great many after-market solutions exist, there’s always someone determined to find a way to defeat it,” said Naspinski.
The NICB and LAPD urge common-sense steps that drivers in a hurry sometimes forget. These include reminders to roll up windows, lock doors, park in well-lit areas, and not leave a key fob in the vehicle.
How we did it: We examined publicly available vehicle theft data from the Los Angeles Police Department from Jan. 1, 2010–Dec. 31, 2022.
LAPD data only reflects crimes that are reported to the department, not how many crimes actually occurred. In making our calculations, we rely on the data the LAPD makes publicly available. LAPD may update past crime reports with new information, or recategorize past reports. Those revised reports do not always automatically become part of the public database.