I’ve been hearing about a ton of carjacking in St. Louis. Stories from people I know who know someone who was recently carjacked or witnessed a carjacking. Plus, there seem to be more media reports about carjacking these days.
There Have Been More Vehicle Thefts and Carjackings Since the Pandemic
Am I crazy? Has there been an increase in carjackings? Yes. And it’s not just St. Louis.
Nationwide there has been a huge increase in motor vehicle theft and carjacking. Here’s the percentage change in vehicle theft in 2022 as compared to 2019 in 30 cities (source):
And carjacking, which is a combination of motor vehicle theft and robbery, has also risen precipitously in major cities. For example, in Chicago carjackings more than doubled in 2020 to 1,400 incidents and it increased further in 2021 to 1,800 carjacks which is five times as many as in 2014. Similarly, New Orleans experienced a 154% rise between 2019 and 2020, which continued into 2021. In Washington, DC, the increase between 2019 and 2020 was 143%,while in Minneapolis, it was well over threefold. Then there’s Philadelphia: “Speaking about carjacking trends in his city, the Philadelphia police commissioner said that carjackings averaged around 230 per year from 2010 to 2019 but that the annual average is no longer relevant, as carjackings “jumped. . .to 409 [in 2020 while] last year  we saw 750 carjackings in the city.” Source.
BUT, note that while carjacking has increased, it is still much less frequent than regular motor vehicle theft and robbery. “Motor vehicle theft rates are more than 20 times greater and robbery rates are nearly 10 times greater than the rates for carjacking.” Source.
Why Has Carjacking Increased?
Experts surmise that increased carjacking is the result of a few factors:
Back in the day, you could break into an Oldsmobile or a Chevy, strip the ignition column, jam a screwdriver in there, and it starts in 30 seconds. With these modern cars, you can’t do that anymore. They require these chips and proximity readers. A lot of the electronics are much more advanced and not accessible to a thief with a screwdriver. So there does seem to be what might be called tactical displacement, where these offenders figure out, “If I identify the car I want, I’m just gonna take it by force. It’s already on and the keys are in it.”
2. The Pandemic. During the COVID-19 lockdown, schools were shut down, which led to young potential offenders having lots of unsupervised time. Plus, the ubiquitous mask-wearing during the pandemic provided anonymity for carjackers. And in some cities, carjacking has remained elevated. Source.
What Motivates Carjacking?
Why do offenders choose to carjack? According to Criminologist Bruce Jacobs, “The economic motives are probably primary — stealing the vehicle to chop it up for parts, or, not infrequently, we see these vehicles being stolen for their accessory items, like performance rims and high-end audio systems, which might be worth more than the car itself.”
But other motivations are sometimes at play. Sometimes, it’s just for the thrill. Or retaliatory if the victim was showboating their car or driving in a manner the offender found disrespectful. Occasionally, the carjacking occurs in connection with another crime, and the offender needs the car to escape.
Typically, carjacking is spontaneous, and the decision to steal the car is made spur-of-the-moment. But other times, it is carefully planned out. An example of this is the “bump-and-rob” technique where the offenders will cause a minor wreck with target and then steal the car when the driver gets out to check for damage. Here’s a news report of a recent bump-and-rob carjacking:
In one case, the victim told St. Louis police the suspect bumped her vehicle while she was waiting to enter the Interstate 64 on-ramp at South Kingshighway. As she exited her car, a 2021 Nissan Altima, she saw a passenger in the other vehicle running toward the Altima armed with a handgun. The victim ran across Kingshighway to escape and turned to see the thief drive off in her Altima.
What Do Carjackers Do With Cars After They Steal Them?
You can’t just go sell a stolen car because the thief doesn’t have the title to the car.
According to Carfax, most stolen cars are taken to chop shops. “Because the parts of a stolen car may be worth more than the vehicle, stolen vehicles often end up in a chop shop. In a chop shop, a mechanic takes the car apart and discards anything that carries your vehicle identification number (VIN), such as the engine or transmission. Whatever parts are left may be sold to salvage yards or other mechanics.”
Of particular value are catalytic converters which contain expensive metals such as platinum, rhodium, and palladium. So even a junker car can turn the thief a quick profit by merely stripping off the catalytic converter and selling it.
Sometimes, stolen cars are shipped overseas and sold in countries where chain of title isn’t as important as in the U.S.
And the car might be able to be resold in the U.S. by using a fake VIN. Again from Carfax: “A car thief may cover up the crime by a fake VIN plate on the stolen vehicle, known as VIN Cloning. The car thief takes the VIN from a legally registered car, installs counterfeit VIN plates, and forges title documents for the stolen car. Unsuspecting dealerships and buyers are led to believe that the vehicle is legitimate.”
Finally, a fair number of carjacked cars are taken for a joyride and then abandoned.
Notably, about 20% of stolen cars are later recovered.
What To Do If You Are Carjacked
Experts advise that you should not resist a carjacking. Makes sense. But sometimes that isn’t easy to do based on the circumstances. Sometimes the victim is concerned that they will be kidnapped, killed, or injured so they resist in order to protect themselves. And sometimes there is a child in the car and the driver resists in order to protect the child.
And don’t leave children in unattended vehicles. I get it — taking a child in and out of a car seat when you are just running into a store for a second is a pain, but last year, 264 children were left unattended in vehicles that were carjacked. Source. Here’s a harrowing story to that effect:
The 34-year-old mom pulled her SUV into her driveway in Libertyville, Illinois, about 3:30 Thursday afternoon. She took one of her children inside the house, and went out to retrieve her 2-year-old son from his car seat when a BMW pulled up, a man got out and attempted to steal her vehicle.
Police said she fought him, but the suspect overpowered her and drove away in her SUV with the toddler in the back seat, running over her as he fled. The boy was found unharmed a short time later in a parking lot in nearby Waukegan, about 10 miles away, and the mom is recovering from serious, non-life-threatening injuries, according to police.Source.
Of course, if you are carjacked, you should report it to the police. Your insurance should reimburse you for the value of your car as long as you have comprehensive coverage (and not just liability).
Fortunately, carjacking usually doesn’t involve other violent crimes.
What Can You Do To Prevent Being Carjacked?
Carjacking can happen anywhere. At a stoplight. At a gas station. In a parking lot. Even in your own driveway. While the majority of carjackings take place at night, a substantial minority occur in broad daylight.
When getting into your car…
- Walk with purpose and stay alert.
- Approach your car with the keys in hand. Look around and inside the car before getting in.
- Be wary of people near your vehicle asking for directions or money to help with gas, or other possible distractions. They may be working with a partner, who will attempt to take your keys and your vehicle.
- Trust your instincts; if something makes you feel uneasy, get into the car quickly, lock the doors and drive away.
While on the road…
- Keep your doors locked and windows rolled up (at least part-way), no matter how short the distance you will be walking or how safe the neighborhood is.
- Be especially alert when stopped at intersections, gas stations, ATMs, and convenience stores.
- When you are coming to a stop, leave enough room to maneuver around other cars, especially if you sense trouble and need to get away. You should be able to see the rear tires of the car ahead of you.
- Drive in the center lane to make it harder for would-be carjackers to approach the car.
- Avoid driving alone, especially at night.
- Do not stop to assist a stranger whose car has broken down. Instead, help by driving to the nearest phone and calling police to help.
- Keep your cell phone in your pocket. If your vehicle is stolen, you will have a way of contacting 911. If your cell phone is left inside the vehicle, you will be stranded without a way to call for help.
- Be aware that some thieves will “bump” a vehicle from behind and steal a victim’s vehicle when the victim stops to exchange information. Signal to the other vehicle’s driver to follow you to a well-lit public area to exchange information. If you see a fire or police station, stop there and summon aid from inside.
When getting out of your car…
- Park in well-lit areas, near sidewalks or walkways. Avoid parking near dumpsters, woods, large vans or trucks, or anything else that limits your visibility.
- Never leave valuables in plain sight; lock your car and take the keys.
- Even if you are rushed, look around before you exit your vehicle and stay alert to your surroundings.