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FEWER CARS STOLEN, MORE HARM DONE

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Even though fewer cars are being stolen these days, car theft is a booming, increasingly international industry.

According to a new study by the insurance industry's investigative arm, 442,961 cars and light trucks were reported stolen in the United States in 1994, 1.2 percent fewer than in 1993 and 7.1 percent fewer than in 1991. But the costs to consumers, in insurance premiums, out-of-pocket repair costs and new-car costs, have remained around $7.5 billion a year - 134 percent more than in 1970. That's largely because cars are more expensive - but also because fewer are recovered.Car thieves no longer tend to be teenagers stealing cars for joyrides; most kids can't hack through today's electronic and steel-security devices. The professionals have taken over, and they've developed global markets for stolen cars and parts. If the car-theft industry were organized as a single company, its revenue would make it the 56th-largest U.S. corporation.

The study, which will be released Thursday, examines how car-theft patterns have changed over the past 25 years. Today, although there is a 62 percent chance that some portion of the car will be recovered, the chances that the owner will be able to drive it immediately are almost nil.

"You don't often find abandoned cars in good condition anymore," says John Di Liberto, president of the National Insurance Crime Bureau. "More and more, stolen vehicles are shipped, stripped, burned or buried. The intricacy of some of these schemes is amazing."

The bureau calculates that a car is stolen every 20 seconds. It doesn't have an estimate of how many thefts go unreported. But investigators know where cars go. They say 31 percent are completely dismantled at chop shops. Still another 31 percent are stripped of hot-selling accessories like radios, air bags and seats. A further 18 percent are recovered with little damage, 16 percent are wrecked, and 4 percent are burned or sunk.

Typically, by the time a car owner discovers the theft, a chop-shop operator has already begun the 30-minute process of dismantling the car. The study found that theft rings steal cars and parts to order, and chop shops keep detailed records of parts in inventory. Repair shops trying to keep costs down order the parts at a discount. A chop shop nets two to four times a whole used car's value by selling it in pieces, the study found.

One highly profitable new scheme is the "strip and run." A car is stolen and stripped of most parts, leaving only the frame behind. Once the police recover the frame, the theft case is closed. That leaves thieves free to track down the frame, using the vehicle identification number, and buy it at an insurance auction. The original parts are then put back on the car, and it can be sold like new.

Then there is the "salvage switch." A thief will visit a salvage yard and buy a badly damaged vehicle for its vehicle-identification number plate. This goes on a stolen vehicle of the same make and model. Thieves then register the vehicle as rebuilt, legitimizing it for sale.

The Middle East has become a hot market for stolen BMWs, Lincoln Town Cars and Cadillacs. In Eastern Europe, the hot cars include Oldsmobiles, Mercedes-Benzes and Jaguars. Central American drivers prefer Ford Explorers and Nissan Pathfinders, the study found.

Increasingly, makers of antitheft devices, automakers and government officials are cooperating to try to put car thieves out of business. The bureau gives General Motors Corp.'s Pass-Key system high marks for discouraging theft.

Starting in 1997, as part of the Federal Anti-Car Theft Act of 1992, all cars will have to have vehicle identification numbers on 14 major components such as the engine, transmission and doors.

But ultimately, consumers can still fight theft best - or at least stop making it easy. According to the study, at least 31 percent of car owners don't lock their doors, while 11 percent sometimes leave their keys in the ignition. And 10 percent won't consider buying even an inexpensive antitheft device like a steering-wheel lock.

"Car owners are the real first line of defense," says Jon Hoch, a spokesman for the bureau. "If they would simply lock their doors, roll up their windows and become concerned, we could at least put the amateurs out of business."