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Jim Diffident remembers the sinking feeling well.

“I was walking back into the parking lot after a sales call, and I couldn’t find my Saturn,” says the veteran pharmaceutical sales executive. “Which  was really odd. Considering I’m in and out of my car all day long, I just automatically note where I’ve left it.”
What did Diffident finally discover? The same thing that dozens of other Tristate business executives discover every day: That he’d been ripped off by car thieves. “The cops finally got it back, a week later, but by then, the insides had been trashed. My files were thrown out. I never did get my laptop [back].”

Grand theft auto. Car hijackings. Vehicle larceny. Whatever you choose to call it, it’s a serious pain in the asset. And after Cincy Business crunched the auto theft numbers — drawing from approximately 90 Tristate police departments — we learned that you particularly should steer clear of Westwood, Colerain Township, Over-the-Rhine, Covington and Walnut Hills. All five are hotbeds for hot wheels, and they’re followed in short order by East Price Hill, West Price Hill, Newport, Norwood and Avondale.

How come Westwood is the No. 1 sin city when it comes to auto thefts? After all, this western suburb – tucked neatly between Cheviot and Bridgetown — began life as a sleepy little log cabin settlement in 1802. (It became a village in 1868, later to be annexed by the City of Cincinnati in 1896.)

“It’s the perfect storm,” speculates one Cincinnati District 3 patrol officer about the mean streets of Westwood, and Harrison Avenue in particular. “That perfect blend of opportunity and motivation, somebody living there or visiting who needs money combined with streets that are easy pickings.”

Often, of course, there’s more to the story than mere statistics.

Take Anderson Township, which weighs in on our list at No. 35  —  even though it would seem counter-intuitive to suggest bucolic Anderson is being victimized by a veritable crime wave.

Dr. Henry Dolive, Anderson’s township administrator, points out that a suburb such as his is unfairly penalized by such a crime survey. “We have an airport, Lunken, we have a major arena, Riverbend Music Center, we have River Downs racetrack and Coney Island amusement park. That certainly skews the numbers.” 

Yes, large crowds and large parking lots certainly make natural proving grounds for enterprising car bandits. Tempting targets include anything from suburban Showcase Cinema pavement all the way to the urban asphalt outside Paul Brown Stadium. But regardless of where you drive or park, you have to be careful.

The Ohio Insurance Institute actually computes the odds your car will be stolen by dividing the number of stolen cars (using 2005 data collected from 16 major city police departments) into the number of registered vehicles in a given community. In Cincinnati, odds are that 1 in every 64 cars will be pinched, a higher rate than any other place in Ohio except Cleveland and Dayton.

The resulting impact, just in terms of dollars, is immense: $6,906,402 in losses here due to stolen cars that never seem to make their way back home.

“The average value per vehicle stolen was $6,173,” observes Mary Bonelli, senior VP for the institute. “Our estimates [are] that 1,118.8 vehicles — 37.9 percent — of Cincinnati’s stolen vehicles are unrecovered, at a cost of $6,173 per vehicle, which equates to over $6.9 million in direct losses associated with vehicles stolen in Cincinnati.”

Not included in these costs, of course, are the potential higher insurance premiums that can result if your insurer believes you were negligent in caring for the safety and well-being of your car. Nor does this count all the time, trouble and headaches that go into shopping for a replacement vehicle — you never want to hunt for a new car while in a panic or under an urgent deadline to replace your wheels. You’ll find yourself paying top dollar.

Here’s where it gets weird: If you drive a pricey Range Rover, BMW or Mercedes, don’t sweat it. Your investment on wheels is relatively safe.

But if you drive a run-down Toyota Camry, road-weary Oldsmobile Cutlass or even a modest Ford Taurus, then kiss your sweet asset goodbye — at least here in the Tristate. Why do the less sexy cars, the 5- and 10-year-old American models, get stolen more often?
“It’s because of the after-market,” observes Vickie Neal, director of the Area 8 Region (which includes Ohio and Kentucky) for the National Insurance Crime Bureau.  Put simply, it’s the law of supply and demand. Older cars break down and will need more replacement materials. “And it’s much easier to get those spare parts from a chop shop.”

A chop shop, for the uninitiated, is a place that disassembles stolen vehicles in order to sell the parts to body shops, dealers and individuals. Thieves have actually discovered they can sell the parts from older models for more cash than the intact vehicle is worth; air bags alone fetch $600 these days.

Another black market for stolen cars is foreign countries. Exports of stolen American cars can earn a tidy dollar in Mexico, for instance, where no questions are asked. Other countries on the Top 10 list for absorbing hot autos — tens upon tens of thousands of ’em each year — include Costa Rica, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Say adios to your Honda Odyssey minivan — it’s not coming back from its deep, deep South vacation.

The best way to fend off a car thief? Put yourself in the felon’s grimy stinkin’ shoes, for a second. Picture him. He’s out looking for a car that doesn’t have an anti-theft alarm device and, better yet, is unlocked.  “Locking your car every time is actually the ultimate anti-theft device,” observes Bonelli of the insurance institute. Don’t leave even a hint of an open window, not even a hairline crack for ventilation. Otherwise, it could become the Case of the Purloined Porsche.

Other deterrents, according to the experts at the Ohio Auto Theft Investigators Association: Ignition “kill” switches, steering wheel locks, smart keys, wheel locks, floorboard gas pedal locks, and fuel cut-offs, or any device that serves to immobilize your vehicle. If your car won’t move or start, it won’t get stolen.
Investigators also favor car alarms that automatically page your cell-phone. This is because overly sensitive motion detectors have hardened all of us to the frequent sounds of blaring alarms. A beeping car won’t necessarily attract any attention in this day and age.

At the least, turn your wheels sharply toward the curb when you park, to discourage illegal towing. If your car has rear-wheel drive, back into your driveway (rear wheels lock on four-wheel drive vehicles, making them difficult to tow). Front-wheel drive cars should be parked front-end first. On either kind of vehicle, always engage the emergency brake.

If you’re serious about car protection, create as many hassles as possible for the potential felon. Some insurance agents even recommend having your Vehicle Identification Number chemically etched into every piece of glass on the car.

And certainly do not, do not leave a spare ignition key hidden on the framework of your car, say investigators. The thieves know the hiding spots and can find any of those so-called “secret” magnetic boxes atttached to the body.

Understand something else about the psychology of the car thief. He knows if he follows a certain formula, then he won’t get caught. Fewer than 14 percent of Cincinnati car thefts are cleared by arrest, and those who are caught are usually the “joy-riders,” the teens who take Uncle Jake’s Jeep out for a spin.  (A statistical portrait suggests the typical joy-rider is a 16-year-old male who favors Firebirds, Camaros or Corvettes, but will make do with any easily obtained vehicle.)

The professional thief, meanwhile, works during the day at high-end malls and other crowded destinations, and lurks at night in sleepy residential neighborhoods. Hence the Cincinnati Police’s pilot C.A.R. program: If you are never likely to operate your car between midnight and 5 a.m., fix a C.A.R. sticker (available at select police sub-stations) to your rear window. If officers see your car on the move at, say, 3 a.m., they will know something is amiss.

Sometimes, your car might still be where you left it, but auto thieves have still done you in. Consider “car cloning,” which is when thieves have already stolen a car, but need to find another car that is the exact same make, model and color. They write down the second vehicle’s identification number, often found on the dashboard. They duplicate the clean car’s VIN number and may even swipe the license tags of that second car. (If you ever step out to your car and find your plates missing, report it immediately. If the cloned car is used for a criminal act or is involved in an accident, the cops might show up at your door.)

Some pros also find day jobs as courtesy valets at hotels and restaurants. What better way to gain access to a whole bunch of car keys? While you can’t prevent a valet from somehow duplicating your ignition key, the illicit spare set isn’t much good to him if you haven’t let him know where you live. Never leave anything with your address in the car—no registration, no title, no subscribed magazines, no letters, nothing.
Whatever nasty things you can say about professional car thieves, they do adhere to a set of standards: They don’t like witnesses, they don’t like well-lit streets, they avoid cars parked near attendant’s stations in parking garages, and they absolutely love winter-time (all those delightful driveways full of empty cars, warming up while the owner runs back inside for a quick cup of Joe). While some crooks prefer carefully planned assaults, choosing the time and place, some thieves react to opportune moments — most often, unattended running cars at ATMs, Blockbuster Video shops or outside gas station convenience stores.

While an alphabet soup of agencies — the FBI, the CPD Intelligence Section, the BMV — might say they’re out there working for you, it really comes down to this:

It’s up to you to protect your vehicle, which is likely your single most valuable investment after your home.
This maxim holds particularly true if you’re traveling to unfamiliar areas.

On business in the Cleveland metro area? Statistics show that you don’t want to park your SUV in Euclid, Parma or Lakewood. What about a business appointment in Greater Columbus? Say bye to your Beemer, particularly in the neighborhoods of Whitehall,  Reynoldsburg and Gahanna. And in the Dayton area, avoid downtown, Miamisburg, Riverside, Huber Heights and Piqua.
Thinking about hopping a flight out of state? Know that there are five times as many car thefts reported at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International as there are at Port Columbus International Airport or Louisville Airport.

Auto thefts are on the rise across Ohio, warns Bonelli, with the largest single percentage increases happening in Lorain, Akron, Parma and Mansfield. The largest single drop in the percentage of car thefts last year was in Hamilton. (For an exclusive list of Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana car thefts, go to

Every 26 seconds, a car goes south — or north, or east, or west. Some cars even go to Iraq. Yes, in this era of terrorism and Homeland Security, you’ve got to worry that your car is contributing to the wrong side of the war effort. Insurgents pack explosives into stolen cars, turning them into the terrorist’s weapon of choice. Muslim extremists in Russia also operate a sophisticated car theft ring to fund their activities.
“ Some of those gangs are just thugs and some are terrorists,” concludes the crime bureau’s Neal. And some just never give motorists an even brake.