Remember The Club? The low-tech steering-wheel immobilizer was the latest and greatest way to stop auto thefts in the 1980s.
Some auto security experts say if you want to keep your car away from thieves, it's time to dust it off -- that low-tech, low-cost device may still be the best way to protect your car.
"Whether you're talking about protecting a government facility, a bank, or a car, people often forget about the low-tech devices," says nationally known security expert Jim Stickley of Trace Security in Los Gatos, Calif. "If I'm going to rob a bank, someone greeting me at the door and asking to see my driver's license might deter me. If I'm going to steal a car and I see a car cover with a lock on the bottom, I can always remove that lock. It's not impossible, but it takes extra time. At the end of the day, I'd rather choose (to steal a car) that doesn't cause me even a little bit of a delay."
Preliminary data released by the FBI show auto thefts rose 1.3 percent between 2011 and 2012, the first increase in eight years. Still, auto thefts are lower than they have been in decades.
That doesn’t offer much comfort to owners whose cars are stolen, especially those with older models that are stolen more often but are less likely to be covered by comprehensive insurance. (See the 2013 list of most-stolen cars in each state.)
The good news is that you don't need to invest a lot of time or money to keep your car safe. Although just about any security system can be defeated, thieves generally don't want to spend the time and effort it takes to break steering columns, rewire systems and otherwise overcome anti-theft devices. Auto security experts offered these five low-tech, low-cost devices to discourage auto thieves:
1. Steering-wheel lock. When thieves stole James E. Winner Jr.'s Cadillac, despite its alarm, he thought back to his tour of duty in the U.S. Army in Korea and how he secured a vehicle's steering wheel with a chain to make it less attractive to thieves. From that memory, The Club was born. Although there are now various models of The Club, the concept remains about the same as when it was first introduced. Basically, two solid steel hooks clip onto a steering wheel. The Club expands so that the wheels can't be turned once the owner locks the device into place. "They still sell a ton of them," said Frank Scafidi of National Insurance Crime Bureau, headquartered in Des Plaines, Ill. "They still work and are very widely used." Cost: About $25 and up.
2. Brake-pedal immobilizer. These work with newer cars, generally those made in the past decade, equipped with automatic transmissions. As drivers know, those cars won't start unless the brake pedal is depressed. "That's what I use," says Chris E. McGoey of McGoey Security Consulting in Los Angeles. The immobilizer prevents that brake action, so the key or start switch won't operate. There are also clutch pedal immobilizers for cars with standard transmissions. Cost: About $25 and up.
3. Your key. OK, this one is a bit of a trick answer, but every security expert we spoke with noted that many drivers leave their keys in their cars inviting theft. Not you? Have you ever started your car, saw something in your yard you wanted to move or fix, and left the car for just a minute? That's all it takes. Still not you? Ever run out in the morning to start your car so it could cool down or warm up while you went back inside to take that last sip of coffee? Then your car is at risk. "I do know there are people that cruise neighborhoods during commuting times, watching for cars' exhaust fumes," says Scafidi, noting that while it's better to lock your car if you do that, it might not make much of a difference to the thief. "Whether the car is locked or unlocked, if the keys are in the ignition, the thief can slip the lock or break the windows and get in and drive away." Police in one large southern city said that 80 percent of auto thefts are due to people leaving their keys in their cars, he says. Cost: Free!
4. Hidden kill switch. An on/off toggle switch can allow you to easily cut the circuitry of the fuel pump so that the car won't start. Each time you leave the car, toggle it on and go. The kill switches can be installed in a host of areas -- under the dashboard, under a seat, in an interior cubby -- so thieves will have to spend some time and effort locating it before they can defeat it. It's a good idea to have an expert install it so you don't damage the dash or install the kill switch in such a way that its presence is obvious, says Scafidi. Cost: About $25 and up.
5. Audio alarms. "It's true car alarms are largely ignored by honest people, but they do cause the amateur thief extra stress that the alarm will attract unwanted attention," says McGoey. And don't make your use of the alarm a secret, he says. Sport stickers on your car with the name of the system. That will also prevent some thefts, he says. Cost: $25 to $200.
An added bonus to your anti-theft devices: You may receive an additional car insurance discount. Don't forget to check with your insurance professional to find out what discount may be available for devices. And, of course, let them know if you do use one, says Michael Barry of the Insurance Information Institute in New York.
Basics devices such as alarms may be good for a 5 percent discount off your comprehensive coverage, but more elaborate GPS-based tracking devices can bring much bigger discounts.