What Is Carjacking and How to Be Safe

Carjacking. Even though this form of criminal activity has received its fair share of media attention around the world, especially in the US, it still remains a crime that is poorly understood and under-researched. Most people know someone or know of someone that’s been a victim. How many times have you stopped at a light or walked to your car while a shady-looking figure was lurking about and thought — “is it my time to get carjacked?”

Like with all violent crimes — the ones where the perpetrator is armed and uses violence or the threat of violence — you are left with both emotional and physical scars. It can happen to you while you’re opening your car door or while you’re talking on the phone in the driver’s seat. Everything is fine and then, all of a sudden, an armed criminal shows up, demands your vehicle, and before you know it, you’re in the middle of an armed carjacking. No ruse, no show, no nothing. You get to keep your life and the criminal gets to keep your car, leaving you only with injuries and trauma.

Below we’ll share all the vital figures on this criminal activity, including the most common practices used by criminals, prevention tips, car insurance industry trends, and how to stay safe, not only physically but financially as well, by getting the right policy.    

What Is Carjacking?

The term is a portmanteau, which is a fancy way of saying that two words are blended together — in this case, hijacking and car. 

Purists will go on to say that it is implied that the vehicle has to be stolen while in transit, but, let’s not get all technical about it and just say that it defines a form of robbery where the item being taken is also the subject of the theft — that being a motor vehicle. This is pretty much the standard carjacking definition used today.

Nevertheless, the term itself first appeared in a murder report on the pages of The Detroit News; it was coined by Scott Bowles and EJ Mitchell when describing the murder of one Ruth Wahl. Wahl was a cashier in her early twenties who was killed over her car — a Suzuki Sidekick. So, for this act to transpire, we need a car, someone to own it, and most importantly, someone to carjack it. In other words, someone to try and take the occupied vehicle from its rightful owner.

What’s the Severity of This Crime?

If you’ve ever wondered what kind of person dares commit such a brutal crime, studies have shown that the deed is indeed premeditated; it’s activated and molded by participating in street culture no less. The criminal mind perceives countless opportunities and weighs in the best options and the most likely victims. 

Unlike car theft, which is considered a more “sophisticated” crime — one where there is little to no interaction between perpetrator and victim — carjacking is thought of as far more serious by many a legal system. 

In 1994, it was added to the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which included it as one of the latest crimes punishable by death in the case the victim is killed during the act. Even if there’s no murder involved, the usual carjacking sentence is much higher than that of your “regular” automobile theft.

What’s more, the Australian Institute of Criminology categorized it into four distinct groups based on motive and the method used: opportunistic and acquisitive; opportunistic and instrumental; organized and instrumental; and organized and acquisitive, depending on why a person commits said crime, and what they plan on using the vehicle for. 

Carjackers’ Methods Revealed

As with all dastardly crimes, criminals must first formulate a plan on how they’ll go about the act to get the things they want in the most optimal (read: ruthless) way possible. There will be steps, a whole procedure, and a concrete system in place (believe you not). Moreover, different crimes have different tried-and-tested techniques that thugs use when they want to car hijack you.

  • Blocking Vehicle — a vehicle pulls up in front of you blocking your advance while another one may pull up behind you, leaving you sandwiched. When you have nowhere to go, the perpetrators spring into action and commit the crime.
  • Good Samaritan — a criminal will pose as a motorist in need, an injured victim, or they’ll simulate a car accident that’ll make you stop to provide aid, thus falling prey to their car hijacking scheme.
  • The Bump — they will bump your vehicle and cause a minor accident, forcing you to stop and be victimized.
  • Car Trouble — again, using people’s good nature, they look to trick people into pulling over to give assistance by pretending that they have car issues and then, before you know it, you’ve become a casualty to one of many roadside carjackings.
  • Halted Traffic Attack — here, natural traffic is the one that sandwiches you in. But the criminals do not just “seize the day,” in fact, they’ve studied the traffic patterns and have planned the crime accordingly, usually attacking either on foot or on motorcycles.

As you can tell, some of these are outright vicious attacks, others are mere circumstance or deceptions used to lure you in. But, even if you’re aware of all these and keep your eyes wide open, you can’t be 100% safe as someone will always think of a new carjacking method

People adapt, they grow wise, and as a result, become more cautious, but then again, so do the criminals. What worked yesterday, might not work today — hence why they have to get extra creative if they’re going to continue plying their trade. Consequently, what you can do is regularly check for lists and strategies published by your police department, auto insurer, and security agency to adequately inform yourself on how not to become a victim. 

Car Hijacking Across the US — The Numbers

Tracking the number of carjacking occurrences isn’t as easy as you might think. The problem arises due to many police departments not having a criminal code for this type of crime, and instead, the perpetrators are charged with one of the following: auto theft, robbery, battery, or aggravated assault. It’s also not reported as a crime in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, so the only thing we have to fall back on when it comes to carjacking statistics is an NCVS survey.

According to this survey, conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, over a period of nine years (1993–2002), it was documented that on a yearly basis, there were close to 38,000 of these crimes happening all around the US. During a four year span (1992–1996) there were as many as 49,000 completed or attempted carjacking cases in the US. 

If we delve a bit deeper into this report, things become plain as day. Namely, there are many factors defining this criminal behavior. More often than not, men are both victims and perpetrators, a weapon is used in 74% of cases, and some 93% of incidents happen in urban areas. Location plays a huge role as well, and believe you may there are even carjacking trends — for instance, the Newark carjacking wave in 2010. The main difference here being that these were done by young men who were simply adrenaline junkies, so to speak. They would commit the crime, drive around for a few blocks, and then abandon the vehicle.

Most Prevalent Cities in the US

If we go by the numbers and look at all the major cities in the US, we start noticing a pattern; for instance, historically speaking, a carjacking in Detroit is a far more common occurrence than in other cities, with an all-time high of 1,231 in 2008, which is more than three a day. Thankfully, these numbers have decreased significantly due to coordinated law-enforcement efforts to 486 back in 2014 and things are looking up.

Sadly, there is no way of knowing or getting a deeper insight into the mindset of the people doing these crimes, and why they happen more in some areas over others. So far, we only have the 2003 study published in the British Journal of Criminology to lean on, conducted thanks to the willingness of 28 Missouri criminals that actively partook in illegal activities — namely, carjacking in St Louis.

Many a state resolved to crack down on said cases and tighten legislation on motor theft. One such state is Wisconsin and one such bill (put forward by the Republicans no less) is called The Car Theft and Reckless Driving Prevention Act. This new act aims to increase penalties for said crimes, especially due to the growing concern caused by the recent Milwaukee carjacking trend — one that has seen a 40% decrease in 2019 fortunately.

While Wisconsin might have experienced said decrease, in other states, the exact opposite has occurred. One city that has experienced a recent spike in this criminal activity is the city of Chicago, with a 75% increase compared to last year, with officers being called to 117 incidents so far this year compared to just 67 during the same period in 2019. This has prompted authorities to bring back an anti-carjacking task force that was formed two years prior.

When and Where Do These Occur?

The reality is that the threat of getting your car stolen while you are either in or near your car can happen pretty much anywhere. It just takes for someone to walk up to you and try to take it. You could be in your driveway or on the street. Nevertheless, according to carjacking statistics most of these crimes, about 44% of them, happen in open areas, whereas 24% occur in places such as malls, parking lots, garages, gas stations, and restaurants. Furthermore, the most likely time for this crime to transpire is while the driver is waiting for a light at an intersection.

It’s also worth pointing out that it’s mainly a night crime, with 68% of carjacking cases taking place under the cover of night. Of course, this is due to the lower frequency of people/witnesses being around, as well as lower visibility and probability of positive identification. 

So, take these factors into consideration, be extra careful when you find yourself in these circumstances and stay vigilant, especially if you live in a heavily populated area where this crime most commonly occurs. 

Which Cars Are Most Likely to Be Carjacked?

You might not be aware of this but the NICB releases an annual Hot Wheels report. Yes, that’s its actual name. It lists the ten most-stolen car models for a particular year in the US. The list is compiled based upon findings and data submitted by law enforcement authorities and it contains both the model and the year of the vehicle.

So, if we take a look at the latest one from 2019, which lists the cars that were subject to auto theft in 2018, we gain a better understanding of what the top carjacked cars are, and what model years are most vulnerable. For example, the Honda Civic reigns supreme and has dominated this list for quite a while now, with a total of 38,426 thefts in 2018. The model year goes up as the years go by. It used to be 1996, then 1998, and now it’s the 2000 model.   

Other popular stolen vehicles include Honda Accords, Ford, Dodge, and Chevrolet Pickups; Toyota Corollas and Camrys; Nissan Altima, and of the newer models you have GMC Pickups.  

Tips on How to Prevent Carjacking

When it comes to most crimes, the criminal heavily relies on the element of surprise to carry out their illegal activity. The goal of said criminals, much like street robbers, is to approach you without you noticing them in order to commence the act when your guard is down the most. So, the most important piece of advice when talking about carjacking prevention is to be extra attentive to your immediate surroundings.   

Risk Reducing Tips

  • Listen to your gut feelings (aka instincts).
  • Always enter your vehicle swiftly and without hesitation.
  • Park your car in well-lit areas.
  • Don’t park near walls, bushes, or dumpsters.
  • Use a parking valet when possible.
  • Drive with your windows locked.
  • Avoid taking streets with frequent stops and intersections.
  • Look into purchasing a car anti-theft device.
  • Keep car keys and house keys on separate chains.
  • When in an accident at a secluded location, don’t get out of your vehicle, drive to an open business, fire or police station before stepping outside your car.
  • Make a habit of starting your car and driving away as soon as you get inside. 

Try your best to abide by the above-mentioned recommendations. They are the least that you can do if you want to stay safe and avoid being a victim of this vicious crime. 

Carjackings and Car Insurance

While vehicle theft has gone down over the past decade, it’s still on many people’s minds. If this is indeed one area of concern for you, and you’re not just worried about getting in an accident with your vehicle — you want to feel safe and secure in the case of break-ins, vandalism, and theft — then you should look into some comprehensive coverage.

If you’ve been a victim of a carjacking, meaning your care was taken from you, and you have the right policy, you should be fully covered for all damages sustained (on the vehicle) while being in the possession of the carjacker. If it isn’t found, or is found but is so damaged that the cost of the actual repairs equals its value, then you’ll likely get paid the actual value of the car, instead of having it repaired.

Given that there is no such thing as an anti-theft car, it’s always better to be safe than sorry and get a policy from one of the best companies out there that will not only protect you from property damage as a result of an accident but also in the case of bodily injury acquired during one. 

Final Words

If you are a victim of an auto theft it might be disheartening to know that authorities don’t actively try to locate your vehicle. The only way for them to recover it is if they find it abandoned or during a routine stop when they run a plate check. So, if you’ve gone through a car hijack ordeal and lost your car, don’t get your hopes up on getting it back. 

It is your duty as a responsible car owner and person to try and make sure that no physical harm comes to you or your property. By now, you should know that staying conscious of your setting when you’re in your car or approaching it is of great importance. According to carjacking facts, this is a crime that happens swiftly, with an average time of about 15 to 20 seconds. So, prevention starts with not putting yourself in a disadvantageous position and falling victim to an unprovoked violent attack.

Due to advancements in anti-car-theft technology, criminals might stray from good old-fashioned motor theft and resort to engaging in this illegal activity, seeing as it’s fast and requires little skill. But, by now you should already know the answer to the questions: what is carjacking, how it happens, how to prevent it, and the need to look for a comprehensive insurance policy as well. If you remember to follow the above-mentioned guidelines, it’s about as much as you can do to stay safe. 

Frequently Asked Questions
What is considered carjacking?

The unlawful takeover of an automobile vehicle with the use of violence or intimidation.

What is the difference between carjacking and hijacking?

To hijack means to forcibly stop and seize a vehicle of any sort, whereas automobile robbery is generally referred to as a carjacking, meaning a seizure of a car.

How common is carjacking in the US?

Automotive theft is on the decline, in general, and so is the hijacking of automobiles. However, they are more common in metropolitan cities followed by suburban and rural areas.                                                             

Is carjacking a violent crime?

Oftentimes, yes. As weapons are used, primarily guns and knives. If you’ve found yourself unharmed, consider yourself fortunate.

How do carjackings happen?

Different methods are used. You’re either approached as you near your vehicle, while you’re in it, or you are conned or forcibly stopped.  

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