Stolen to Order: Israel's Car Thieves Are Getting Choosier

Overall vehicle theft has been falling - though not auto insurance rates - but the practitioners have honed their craft.

Daniel Schmil
Daniel Schmil
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Daniel Schmil
Daniel Schmil

Only when renting a car in Europe can Israelis still enjoy the long-forgotten experience of simply putting the key into the ignition and turning it to start the engine. In Israel, the process involves several additional steps that can turn out to be quite lengthy if you punch the wrong code into the immobilizer and find yourself waiting several minutes until the system resets itself.

These sophisticated mechanisms are a relic from an age when car theft was regarded as a national plague here. Nearly 36,000 vehicles were stolen in 2005, but last year the number was down to around just 20,000. Figures for 2013 point to a continuation in the trend, but sources in the vehicle industry claim that the rate is still far from falling to the levels prevalent in Europe.

Calling the industry's lax attitude toward theft "scandalous," Elihai Eligon, CEO of the leasing agency Lease4U, says he doesn’t carry comprehensive insurance on his cars because, in terms of a fleet of vehicles, it isn't financially worthwhile. “Leasing companies buy fewer of the most frequently stolen models, and their leasing fees reflect the risk,” he says. “The company leasing the car pays more for models that are most likely to be stolen.”

Thousands of vehicles are stolen each year, and they contain equipment and valuables such as baby car seats, laptops and personal items. When the owner’s home is broken into and the keys taken, it's a threat to personal security. Tel Aviv accounted for 22% of reported car thefts in August, according to police records, with the rest of the central district accounting for 35%, the Jerusalem district 16% and the southern district 13%.

"Eighty percent of the cars are stolen to be broken up for their parts in the territories, so the closer you are to the seam line, the higher the number of thefts," explains Yaniv Bar, enforcement manager at Ituran, a company specializing in vehicle security and tracking. "The separation fence helped reduce thefts, but Tul Karm and Hebron remain chop-shop capitals." This is why Petah Tikva has become the favorite city for thieves from the territories, he says.

The most commonly stolen model isn't a car at all but the Sanyang motor scooter. The runner-up is also a scooter – made by Kymco. The third most popular model is the Mitsubishi Lancer car. Among cars manufactured since 2009, the most frequently stolen is the Mazda 3, followed by the Kia Forte and the Kia Rio. The most popular models are stolen for their parts; trucks are stolen for parts and also to drive. Luxury cars usually go for driving in the territories, says Bar.

Who benefits 
from hot cars

"We need to look at who benefits from the thefts," says Eligon. "Every stolen vehicle is replaced by another, and at the end of the chain someone buys a new car. In Israel, which imposes a tax of over 50% on every new car, this serves somebody's interests. My feeling is that the authorities are indifferent to the problem. Etgar [the police unit dealing with vehicle theft] works very hard, but it has severe budget limitations."

There are three main factors that make a model a target of theft, according to an industry source - being a popular make; having expensive parts; and models whose owners don’t care if they're buying stolen parts. These three factors converge in the taxi market, he says, so that nearly every model popular for use as a cab becomes a prime target, causing insurance premiums for them to skyrocket.

The Etgar unit says 80% of the cars are smuggled across the Green Line, while most of the remaining cases are perpetrated by youth using them for a joyride. Motorcycles and scooters are naturally easier to steal, and the relatively expensive replacement parts for motorcycles make stealing them all the more worthwhile.

"This is a particularly painful blow because most [motorcycles and scooters] don't have comprehensive insurance,” says Ehud Dagan, one of the leading insurance agents for two-wheeled vehicles. He estimates that about half of all owners insure their vehicle the first year, but after that the rate declines dramatically. “The problem is that there's no enforcement and no punishment, and the thieves are quickly released. I recommend riders to always secure the vehicle to a fixed object using a massive chain," he says.

In the past, thieves traditionally used simple methods, breaking into a car or house and looking for keys to the owner’s vehicle, according to a source at Etgar. "But today it's really specialized. The thief knows which car he's looking for and prepares," he says.

It is now common to identify made-to-order thefts, says Ilan Goldstein, manager of the Pointer vehicle-locating division of Shagrir Systems.

"If an engine or a door of a certain color is needed, you'll see several identical cars stolen the same night in various places because someone ordered a part," he says. "Thefts are mainly prevalent near car repair areas, particularly around the seam line. In this case, the thief can duplicate the key, he knows the code, and he also knows where the owner lives. He just needs to start the engine. Popular cars are almost always stolen using one method - disabling the car computer system. This way, the thief bypasses all the security systems and can start the car."

If this is the case, is the code pad method still an effective deterrent?

Not necessarily, according to car-tracking company managers. "For luxury cars, a code is needed because in their case the keys are usually stolen. But for popular cars, the method is different and the code pad is irrelevant," says Bar.

Insurance companies have realized that the era for code pads and the safes - which are secure enclosures for car computer systems - has passed, says Goldstein. The latest idea is to install a transmitter and tracking system, which can serve also to alert the police and medics in case of an accident. Such systems, he says, are becoming mandatory in Europe.

The future: Transmitters

Installing a transmitter entails a monthly payment to the tracking company, a cost the companies claim should reduce premiums. But Liat Cohen, a vice president at Direct Insurance, says damage from accidents forms a much larger component of the risk premium in car insurance.

"The number of accidents is 25 times greater than the number of thefts, if not more," says Cohen. "Only 10% of claims paid by insurance companies covers theft, and the rest is for accidents. Obviously there are models that are more frequently stolen, and then the theft premium is higher. When looking to buy a new car, it’s wise to clarify what the premium will be and how much any required antitheft devices will cost."

Bar says the number of thefts could be reduced if drivers were more careful. "Many drivers still write the code on the sun visor, keep it in their wallets, or store it in their cellphone," he says. "That's like writing your ATM code on your credit card - strongly not recommended. Also, it's best not to leave the keys in the parking lot, and if the keys or code must be left - at the garage, for example - the code should be changed afterward."

"Just" 20,000 cars were stolen in 2012 compared with 26,000 in 2005.Credit:

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