Tips From a Former Car Thief on How to Protect Your Car

I mentioned in my post on the roadrage trial, and in a comment on Modest Money about my criminal past. Everyone was nice enough about it that I thought I’d go balls to the wall and fess up to my faithful followers.

The Truth

My criminal record is long and I was stupid when I was a kid. I wanted attention from my dad and wasn’t getting it so I started doing illegal things. It’s not my dad’s fault though, I knew the stuff I did was wrong—I was being an idiot.

I do feel bad about the things I did. Legally speaking, I put in my time for all I’d done. Paid my debt to society, if you will. But like I said, I do still feel bad, and so I thought it might be cool to “give back” some more.

One thing I did in my troubled youth, as we’ll call it, was break into cars. My friends and me got very good at it. And so here are some tips, coming from me, a former car thief, for things that you can do to make it less likely that you’ll get your car broken into.

How It Goes Down

From the moment we would break a car window, we assumed that someone was on the phone with the police. We figured that police could be on the scene in 60 seconds. To play it safe, we gave ourselves 20 seconds. 20 seconds from the initial window break to us being gone.


20 seconds. That’s all it takes.

Those 20 seconds weren’t the “one Mississippi…two Mississippi…” kind either. We counted fast because we didn’t want to get caught. Honestly, it could’ve been even 10 seconds.

What does that mean for you? It means that the “just a sec” that you “run in” to drop off your library book or pick up your carry-out dinner is all we needed. Actually, way more than we needed.

In 20 seconds, we’d have your stereo, CDs, and anything else that looked cool, and be gone.

Sometimes There’s Nothing You Can Do

Sometimes, there’s nothing you can really do to avoid a break in. Like I said, it takes 20 seconds, which is fast, and you can’t do anything about that.

We’d usually walk through suburbia neighborhoods and break into cars parked in peoples’ driveways or on the street. And so if we happened to be on your street, well, nothing you can really do to prevent that.

So dudes, sometimes there’s just nothing you can do.

So What Can You Do?

  1. Stereo face plates – Put them in the glovebox. If a stereo has no faceplate, then it wasn’t worth it for me to steal. Can’t sell a stereo/radio on the black market without a face plate. I knew that it could be sitting in the glovebox, but I also knew that maybe you took it out of the car with you. It’s too uncertain, so we’d move to the next car.
  2. The Club– Actually driving away with a car that has The Club on it is not easy. It can be done, I assure you, but it takes more time than we would’ve liked. So if a car has The Club on it, we’d pass on stealing it.  Of course, cars today usually have cheap, plastic-type steering wheels and so I know that many car thieves today will just cut the steering wheel, making The Club useless. But that takes time, and time isn’t on the side of a car thief, so something like The Club will really lower your chances of getting your car swiped entirely.


    To lock or unlock…it all depends.

  3. To lock or unlock your car doors? – Depends. If you are in a particularly “bad” neighborhood, leave your car doors unlocked and your windows down. From my experience, people in those neighborhoods will break into your car no matter what. They’ve got little to lose (I’ll have a post about that later on). So you might as well leave the car open so that they don’t break your windows while they’re at it. However! If you’re in a “normal” to “good” neighborhood, lock your car doors and windows. My friends and I usually spent our time in “good” or “normal” neighborhoods and cars that were locked was a mild deterrent. If we really wanted something, we’d break your window for sure, but we’d have to really want it. If you left your doors unlocked, we’d be in there no matter if we wanted something originally or not!
  4. Car alarms– Car alarms are not the point here. What I recommend is that you have a little blinking light that’s highly visible on your dashboard somewhere. Anytime we saw a little blinking light, we’d move on because it looked like a car alarm and that wasn’t worth the trouble to us. You can buy a little blinking light at automotive stores that you affix to your dashboard with Velcro – they’re like little fake car alarms, and they work. If it looks like a car alarm and blinks like a car alarm, then we’d always pass on that car.

    hood ornament

    Don’t get a car with a hood ornament

  5. Hood ornaments – Most cars don’t have these anymore, and that’s good. My favorite thing to steal was hood ornaments (there’s a little black market on those, and there’s just something about them that I liked) and so if you had one, I’d rip it off. So easy to do. A car with a hood ornament was like a beacon, “come rip me off!”
  6. Putting stuff in your trunk – Remember how I said it took us 20 seconds to break in and steal your stuff? That quick time can actually work to your advantage. We never broke into a car and popped the trunk. Never. There wasn’t time. So if there’s something that you need to leave in your car (suitcase, CDs, GPS, sports equipment, etc), just throw it in your trunk. We never had the time to look in there.
  7. Expensive cars – There are people who steal cars for a living, and so if you have an expensive car, they’ll probably target you. But for the kind of stealing I did, we always stayed away from expensive cars. They’d probably have car alarms or something else fancy and we just weren’t interested in dealing with anything like that.
  8. Other car types – We loved Jeeps. The ones with the cloth tops. Those were prime targets for us because they’re just so easy. Breaking into them was noiseless (just cut the cloth!) and so it was very very simple.
  9. Lots of stuff in your car – If your car is full from the floor to the roof with junk, I usually passed on those cars. Too much stuff in the way, hard to tell what I wanted or didn’t, and I didn’t want some rat popping out at me or something.
  10. Nothing in your car — A car with nothing in it was a car to pass on, too. There’s nothing in there to steal – unless the stereo was something special, what would I break in to it for?
  11. loose change

    Get rid of the loose change

    Some stuff in your car – Loose change, tape measure, GPS system (or radar detectors back in my day)…those things are targets like you wouldn’t believe. When we saw some loose change, we just had to have it. Window broken, gank the $0.85 and anything else loose. And now you’ve got a broken window and insurance to deal with, all because I saw some loose change. Unless you go the route of having a car filled so much that you’re a mini-hoarder, you absolutely gotta keep it empty. No loose change. No little screwdrivers, tollway passes, sports equipment, cool signs, t-shirts, or anything!

  12. Streetlights – If your car is in shadows, then it was easier for us to break in to unnoticed. If you’re under a streetlamp, it felt too exposed. So park in well-lit areas. We never ever ever ever broke into a car that was in a well-lit area. Never. We only broke into cars that were in darkness.
  13. Exterior home lighting– You should install motion sensor lights on your home. If we walked near a home and one of those clicked on, we were the hell outta there. Exception: If a motion sensor light was hung in a spot where we could reach it, we’d just unscrew the bulb. Problem solved for us. So install motion sensor lights and for Heaven’s sake, install them high enough so that a 6 foot dude can’t unscrew the bulb in them!


    Light: The Car Thief’s Enemy

  14. Parking locations – We never hit cars in big parking lots. Too much light usually, too many potential eyes watching. We only stuck to suburban neighborhoods, especially ones with not much lighting. So parking lots are safer than you might think.
  15. Spare tire – If you own a van or a truck, make sure you chain your spare tire to the vehicle. We’d rip off spare tires so easily and sell them. So chain those suckers down and make the chain visible. Just like with a blinking car alarm light (fake or not doesn’t matter!), a visible chain holding down your spare tire is an easy visual for a thief to know it’s not worth it.

The Take Home Message?

If you remember nothing else, remember these two things – (1) light is the criminal’s enemy. We hated light! Hated it! This makes light your friend. Park under street lights and park near motion sensor lights, and dumb little criminals like I was, will stay away. (2) 20 seconds. It only takes 20 seconds. Don’t ever forget that.

Since I’ve mended my ways, I’ve had stuff stolen from me and had my car broken into. I know how much it sucks. I’m sorry I did it when I was younger. I hope these tips can help keep it from happening to you!


Photo credits: street lamp, hood ornament, locks, clock


Tips From a Former Car Thief on How to Protect Your Car — 106 Comments

  1. I appreciate this article. I was looking ,retrospectively now, for articles about the who , what, where, why and how I was targeted by car thieves in Europe. As well travelled as I am, the day it happened we let our guard completely down. I was pinched good and hard! I made EVERY combination of mistakes a dumb ass could while travelling by car. Though it was broad daylight, parked next to a canal, we left every last valuable thing in it down to my shitty little 3g iphone…to begin with we left the car a huge disheveled mess with clothes, pillows, blankets, food containers along with laptops, galaxy tablet, camera, my bag which contained my RX meds …plus 7000.00 cash , a bank card and our passports and other identification. Everything was always hidden but I think we may have been preoccupied with it being our anniversary and didn’t make all the necessary determents before we locked up and walked away. As many times as we do it, the bottom line is we will always be targets if we continue to travel around the world by rental car. This particular rental is a cheap little basic Toyota Aygo with no alarm. This happened aug 29 and as of this writing, we are out of Europe but in England with family and probably leaving for home to the states next weekend.
    Feel free to let me have it. Thanks for listening.

    • That SUCKS! Really ruins a vacation. You can spend your whole life doing all the right things to prevent a break-in, but still sometimes, it just doesn’t matter, a thief wants to break in to your car and so he’ll get into it. Maybe your car would’ve been broken into no matter what on that day. Or maybe not, you did make it look pretty alluring, which sucks. We all make mistakes. Sucks that you had to make such an expensive one. No one deserves it though. Hope you get back on track with all your stuff!

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  4. Question what if your car has an alarm and is parked in your driveway with a motivated n sensor yet still gets broken into. Its happened to me 4 times now. What else can I do?

    • Don’t know if you’re a dude or a chick, but when it gets to that point, I’m a fan of personal interaction. Baseball bat, wait in your front window, and run out a’swingin’ when they come back. That’ll scare the crap out of them. That’s a dangerous tactic though because you don’t know if they have a weapon on them. They probably don’t, or if they do, they’ll be too startled to use it, and they’ll run away. Which is what you’re hoping for.

      Buy a dog that’s chained in the front yard by the car?

  5. I had my car broken into this morning. Mine is one filled with junk. They only took my cds. What happens too stolen cds? Almost all of them plate old, indie, and obscure. I can not imagine anyone else enjoying most any of them, especially a car thief.

    • Back in the day, we’d keep ones we liked, and the rest we’d sell on the black market. And by “black market” I mean we’d sell them to some highschool or junior high kids for a couple bucks. Kids too dumb to know that they were stolen CDs. Nowadays, I don’t know what a car thief would do with CDs. It’s an old technology that ain’t worth much.

      Maybe it’s just that they’re shiny. We’d grab loose change in cars…looking back, it seems like a lot of trouble to break into a car for 68 cents that’s on the floor, but there was something about that shiny change just laying there. Maybe it’s the same with CDs. Shiny. Distracting to dumb car thieves.

      Hope your insurance covered your break-in, sorry that it happened to you!

  6. I smiled when I read that you “didn’t want some rat popping out” at you. I am traveling cross-country with my car full of the few things I thought I’d need, and I’ve been a nervous wreck. You’ve given me hope at least that anyone who looks in my car would think “rat’s nest” and look elsewhere!

    • Haha, yeah. We never wanted junk straight from a hoarders car. Just make sure that you don’t have anything valuable looking right on top! ANd park under street lights at night; lock your doors.

  7. So really the main thing is LOCK YOUR FUCKING DOORS. someone who is breaking into cars is looking for easy. this dude is saying he breaks windows but that is only if you see something worth a whole neighborhood of theft.

    A person can walk down a neighborhood and literally walk back and forth from each house and try to get into each car. fuck grabbing radio’s and shit you can make more just getting what they leave inside. tools, personal dvd players and credit cards are always sitting in peeps cars. not to mention lose change and cash.

    Lock ur fucking doors because with the good thief you wont know until a day or two later. plus if you think those stupid flood lights stops anyone you are dumb as shit. all that does is gives them light to work with. camera’s, locked doors, and alarm systems are the only deterrent. you should also leave ur car clean and empty because if someone sits inside it and see’s nothing they wont stick around to search.

    also the trunk thing is stupid. people will open the trunk just as they might break the window. I have had people break into my car, steal the battery because the alarm and then steal everything else. so don’t think ANYTHING WILL HELP BUT PREVENTION.

    • All thieves are different, dude. Depends on the neighborhood and whether they’re a petty dumba*s or trained and know what they’re doing. My buddies and I would look for loose change and open car doors, in and out in less than a minute; but like you say, other dudes will break windows and trunks, maybe spend a little more time if they cased the place properly. Keeping your car empty of stuff is the best prevention. Locked doors is best prevention #2 for sure.

  8. There is one person breaking into my car .I am living in my car and he worked as a tow truck driver can get in take what he wants while I’m at work. . Anything I can go to stop it .. Please I’m desperate to keep the little I ha e left. . Thank you jody

    • When you’re at work, keep your car parked close and watch it! I’d even tell my boss that someone keeps breaking into my car and ask if I could park it right up front (I might not tell my boss that I live in my car though). I always suggest the fake car alarms too (fake little blinking red/blue lights). Not sure if that would work in your case or not.

      I’m not really suggesting this, but when I was younger, you know what I would’ve done? Gotten a bat and hid in some bushes near my car. When the trucker dude came and tried to start breaking in again, I’d come out with the bat yelling and swinging! That’s probably not a good idea though.

  9. My suburban neighborhood is dealing with a thief right now. Every few nights he hits another car. I got hit 2 days ago. It’s easy to get angry (I know), but the people who do this are mostly young male losers. Those of us who succeed did so because we were often surrounded by people who helped is succeed. Society needs more jobs and training and community centers to help these people earn money the legit way and allow them to feel good about doing honest work. I can’t imagine a thief feeling proud of taking advantage of hardworking people.

    • When I was a petty thief I felt satisfied that I was “sticking it to the man.” Stupid, I know. Now that I’m grown up I can see that “the man” is a dumb term. Does having a decent job and paying taxes make someone “the man”? Do they deserve to get ripped off because they’ve put in their time and are finally able to save up some money and buy a house? I was a real sh*thead back then and didn’t see the truth that people deserve better. Jobs and training for felons and dumbsh*ts like my younger self would REALLY have been great. No one wants to train or give jobs though to people who seem untrustworthy. It’s a tough situation.

  10. I appreciate all that you wrote for people like myself! We have been hit twice now in the last month and half.. First time siphoned gas, second vehicles broken into.. It’s been a while since the things have happened in our area, but anyway I find it really frustrating.
    I don’t have any money too replace items and gas also, my income is very limited and a senior!! Scraped up money to buy a locking gas cap and now looking at how to shock anyone trying to even open my doors!!!
    So thank you for telling us your suggestions!!

    • Hard to answer that, Tom. They’re just shiny, I guess. And, well, it’s free money. I don’t have to sell anything to get money, with loose change, I just have the money. Seems dumb now, but when I was younger, my buddies and I loved cars with loose change.

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  12. I liked your article. now Ik a few ways to keep people away from my car. I’m a 16 year old girl and I literally got my car 3 weeks ago. They broke into my car and got nothing because there is legit nothing in my car. BUT THEY HAD TIME TO STEAL MY TIRES. ALL FRIKKEN 4. Idk how no one didn’t see but my mom heard something at 4 am went outside and my tires were gone. I live in an apartment and around me is other neighbors/ houses. I think this neighborhood is alright it’s not too good or too bad. I just. Ugh idk I’m upset. The one night I don’t pull an all nighter this summer, somebody robs me. If I were awake and heard something I would’ve worn sneakers and grabbed my field hockey stick because I’m not letting someone get away that easily. After what had happened to me I’m most definitely checking up on my car more often at night with my stick by my side. I’m just so pissed. It’s not hard to get a job at Walmart you know. Or f*ckin McDonald’s. And it sucks cause the cop told my parents and I that the kind of tires I had were the tires that have been getting stolen lately. But anyways great article. It helped im definitely gonna use the advice given in your article.

    • That sucks! Sorry that happened to you. Definitely make sure to park in your parking lot under a street light. And a fake car alarm is good. Dudes who steal tires like that are usually pretty good at it. Gone in 60 seconds, so to say. And if it was really 4am, it’s probably for real that no one saw anything, especially if the dudes were pros! Again, sorry it happened to you.

  13. Hello I hope you reply, I’m thinking of buying a 2015 mustang but I would have to park it in the street, I want to get a alarm and immobilizers, I don’t know if to get it because I don’t want it stolen, I live in a guetto Hispanic city in Los Angeles and I don’t know if it’s safe. I know I can get insurance for theft but that’s not the point haha I don’t want it stolen period. Any tips and what u recomend and if u think I should not worry as much and buy it, I live in a Main Street not a huge street but it’s a busy street

    • Hey man, that’s a tough call. Anytime anyone has a car, there’s a chance it’ll get broken into or stolen. Keeping the car clean on the inside and having an alarm and The Club does make a big difference. Parking where it’s well-lit is important too. And since your street is busy, it does make it harder for someone to break in or lift. And, it’s a Mustang, it’s not like you’re parking a Lambo.

      But. Being on a busy street does also mean that more people are driving by and can see it and become interested. And a Mustang is pretty sweet.

      I don’t know the answer, dude. I can’t say that it won’t be broken into, because it might. But, it might not. You’ve got a lot going for you that make it less likely to get stolen.

      I don’t like to live by what other people think or might do to me. You just gotta live, man! Protect yourself as best you can and do what ya gotta do. And you’ve even got insurance, so if some jack clown does rip it off, you’re not going into debt over it. Guess I think that you should get it. Live life, dude!

  14. TB my car was parked at a local park and while I was walking with my kids, a thief broke my window and stole my purse. My purse had MY LIFE in it, I had just been to DMV to renew my license and got the “new” license that requires lots of stuff to get, birth certificate, social security card, etc… So every piece of ID I own, was in my purse. But U.S. Know what gets me the most? I had a plastic baggie filled with clippings from my daughters first haircut… Yeah, that brought me to tears and a letter, the last one my Dad wrote to me before he passed away, gone forever. My fault for leaving my purse under seat in my Jeep? Yeah, I guess so. What has got me scared is the thief knowing all about me….. My iPhone filled with photos (had security code on it but who knows if they can break it) (even though I had phone turned off asap, they told me they could still access photos etc) anyway, my question is….. What will they do with my ID? Will they come to my home and try to use my keys to get in ? (I’ve changed locks but am still frightened) will they try to come and break in my home? I know you can’t answer for this thief but just wondering…. What do you do with the ID, like license, credit cards etc? Do you throw it in a random garbage, the dump, a dumpster? I have been driving endlessly around town looking for my stuff but of course haven’t found. If you’re wondering if I feel traumatized by this, the answer is yes :(

    • I’m sorry this happened to you — what terrible timing for a car break-in!!

      Sometimes thieves “cross over” or “graduate” into other areas, but often, they stick with what they know. Someone jerk kid who broke into your car probably won’t break into your house, too. That’s a pretty big step-up in seriousness of crime. They probably ditched your keys right away. Changing your locks was a great idea though, now they certainly can’t get in!

      They probably wiped your phone and already sold it. With photos, most thieves know that people have photos on their phones of kids, animals, and vacations…none of which a thief gives two cares about. So again, they probably wiped it and sold it immediately.

      When we would find credit cards (RARELY), we would use them right away before the person had them cancelled. Gas stations, Subway, McDonalds, the mall… When the card no longer worked, we’d just throw it away. Not in a garbage can, just on the ground wherever we were. Because we didn’t care. If you cancelled all your cards, then that problem is already taken care of for you, and those cards are already dropped somewhere and useless.

      The drivers license is an awesome find for a young thief. We’d either use them to buy beer or sell them to classmates who wanted a fake ID. At some point, we’d lose the ID accidentally because we were dumb, or a store clerk would confiscate it (because obviously it was not us in the picture). Your ID is almost certain to get used. But the best you can do is go to the DMV, get a new one, and tell them the previous one was stolen. Happens all the time. You’ll be okay.

      Social security card and birth certificate. Damn! Those are tough to lose. For us, young dumb kids, we wouldn’t have known how to use those for any good. We’d have dropped them somewhere. An older thief might know to sell those to an illegal immigrant or to an identity thief. You gotta get yourself identity thief protection and when you replace those things, let the people there know and see if they suggest anything else.

      You really lost a lot (and now you’re scared too!), which really sucks. Sorry this happened. Jeeps are always the easiest to break into, but if you want to keep your Jeep, then you already nailed the best lesson of all. Don’t leave purses or wallets or valuables in your car. Then there’s nothing in there to steal.

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