by Paul Williams

When car alarms were first introduced, a wailing car in the supermarket parking lot caused all kinds of attention.

Now when one goes off, people just talk louder. Car alarms don’t seem to bother anyone, least of all car thieves.

No matter what you drive, or where you live, your vehicle’s vulnerable.

Insurance companies and law enforcement agencies divide auto theft into two kinds: enterprise theft and opportunity theft.

Enterprise theft is when you steal a vehicle for re-sale, or for parts. Late-model SUVs and luxury cars are the vehicles of choice for re-sale; vehicles three-to-eight years old are usually targeted for parts.

Opportunity theft is when the vehicle’s stolen for joyriding, transportation, or the commission of some other crime. These thieves aren’t too fussy about what they steal, as long as it runs. In Canada, more than 160,000 vehicles are stolen per year. Montreal and Vancouver are the hot spots for vehicle theft; the Atlantic Provinces record the fewest incidents. Phoenix, near the Mexican border, is the car theft capital in the US.

It’s opportunity theft that accounts for the majority of vehicle thefts in Canada — between 50-70% depending on your location. But at least you’re likely to get your vehicle back. With enterprise theft, you can usually kiss your car goodbye.

“More criminals are attracted to car theft because the value of vehicles is going up,” states Detective Steve Gardner, Organized Theft Division, Ottawa Police. “Even a basic late-model family car is in the $20-25,000 range. This means there’s more profit to be made.”

Detective Gardner points out that when caught with a stolen car, a first offender usually faces probation: “I personally think that sentences are too lenient. Offenders can expect a fine or probation, or probation plus fine. It’s not much of a deterrent.”

The good guys do win sometimes, though. Project Navigator, a police initiative begun in Ottawa two years ago, recently shut down an international, multi-million dollar operation that was shipping vehicles out of the country or chopping them for parts.

And when you check the statistics, things don’t look so bad. At least, at first glance they don’t.

In 1999, vehicle theft fell for the fourth consecutive year, so counter-measures are having an impact. Problem is, each year fewer stolen vehicles are recovered.

The rising cost of car theft, about $1 billion annually, according to Henning Norup, President and COO of the Vehicle Information Centre of Canada (VICC), is a key factor that affects everybody’s insurance rates.

So what’s a driver to do? Short of using a Romulan Cloaking Device, is there anything out there that will keep thieves out of your car?

The VICC has identified five categories of anti-theft products currently available. Last year they introduced a tough Canadian standard for auto theft deterrents and systems, called ULC-S338.

Of the five product categories, the VICC recommends one, but that doesn’t mean the others are entirely without merit. Here’s the list:

  1. Vehicle Marking Schemes: This involves marking some unique identifier on parts to make the car traceable. This definitely deters thieves who plan to dismantle or re-sell the car, but it won’t bother opportunity thieves.
  2. Mechanical barriers on controls: This is an item like the Club, or Boot, that you attach to the car. They can work, but their problem is the vehicle owner has to set them every time the vehicle is parked. This soon becomes inconvenient, especially if you’re in and out of the car on a regular basis.
  3. Alarms: According to the VICC, these are essentially noisemakers, often ignored.
  4. Tracking systems: Products like The Boomerang, currently available throughout Canada, use a transmitter hidden in the car that emits a signal. You’ll pay a monthly fee for a company to monitor the signal. The system won’t prevent the car from being driven away in the first place, though.
  5. Immobilizers: These are electronic devices that arm automatically once the vehicle is shut down (called passive arming) and which prevent the vehicle from being started and driven away. They cut vital circuits in the vehicle. To disarm the system, a special key or code is required.

It’s number 5, the vehicle immobilizer, which the VICC recommends. These are the systems you’ll typically find as original equipment on late-model cars. In the 2001 model year, 40% of new cars sold feature VICC approved immobilizers, with more being added regularly. Henning Norup mentioned that Volvo’s anti-theft system is the latest to receive VICC approval.

One of the key features of a VICC approved immobilizer is that it cuts at least three primary circuits, like the starter, ignition and fuel supply. It also has to meet stringent installation and technical standards.

Currently there are only two aftermarket immobilizers that are VICC approved. These are the Magtec 6000 and the PFK Autowatch.

For those without an immobilizer, or wanting to upgrade, one can readily be installed. Car insurers may give a discount if you do so.

But the market offers many deterrent systems in addition to the VICC approved units that you may want to consider. Several are Canadian-made, and all are designed to give some grief to the thief.

Vinguard is a do-it-yourself system to permanently etch your vehicle identification number on glass, metal or plastic surfaces, like windows and mechanical parts.

At $29.95 it’s a low-cost method that makes your car less attractive to enterprise thieves. It’s unlikely to reduce opportunity theft, but it can’t hurt. Order a kit online from vinguard.org, or from 1-888-846-4827.

Ottawa-based Trilogix Electronic Systems develops, manufactures, and markets a range of engine interrupt and immobilizer systems. The simplest is their Keysense system, at $45.00 plus installation. It works by disabling your ignition when you remove your key. A flashing LED lets the thief know protection is on board.

The most sophisticated Trilogix system is their IMB-2000 transponder at $120.00 plus installation. A transponder is a device that both sends and receives a pre-determined signal. This “code hopping” Radio Frequency Identification System (RFIS) signal changes each time the IMB-2000 is armed or disarmed, making it almost impossible for thieves to crack the code. The IMB-2000 immobilizer cuts power to three primary circuits.

Trilogix products are available online through their 12voltshop.com site, or call 1-877-212-8058 for a local dealer.

The CAA has offered a code hopping anti-theft system for members and non-members for two years. It’s available through your local CAA centre, and is a single circuit, passively armed device that disables the starter. The installed price is $208.00 for non-members and $198.00 for members.

VCALL Systems Inc is another Ottawa-based company. It launched its new VCALL monitored vehicle alarm at the Ottawa Autorama, in April 2001. The immobilizer disables two primary circuits, but it adds a unique wrinkle — it integrates with your home alarm.

The VCALL system is first to market with a device that effectively makes your car another zone in your home or business alarm system. Given that you’re likely at home or at work for two-thirds of the day, this is a timely development.

The system can monitor up to 4 separate vehicles to a distance of 150 meters. It’s also portable, and can operate as a stand-alone immobilizer, albeit unmonitored.

“We’re expecting that home alarm companies will offer the VCALL as part of their residential or commercial package, and charge a few dollars a month for monitoring, just as they do with your home system,” says Jody Lavoie, Vice President of VCALL Systems.

Alternatively, you can buy the device for $499.00 installed, and notify your alarm company that you have an additional zone — your car.

VCALL Systems supports and is working towards ULC-S338 approval for their product. You can find a retailer by visiting them online at vcallsystems.com, or calling 1-800-673-5190.

Calgary-based Magtec Products Inc. offers one of the two immobilizer systems that meet the ULC-S338 standard. The other system is from South African PFK.

Magtec Executive Vice President, Rob Whitfield, makes a bold claim for his product: “Out of 170,000 installations, there’s not one reported case of a successful theft by defeating the Magtec system. Many have tried, but none have succeeded.”

Mr. Whitfield continues: “I’ve seen consumers spend $1500.00 on a car alarm system. With some of them, all a thief has to do is remove the light from your licence plate, stick in a screwdriver, and the system’s gone.”

The Magtec 6000 is not available over-the-counter, and must be installed by accredited technicians. Find a dealer near you by calling 1-888-624-8320, or go to their website at magtec3000.com.

The system costs between $300-$450 installed. It’s waterproof, hammerproof, and runs on its own power supply.

Thief-proof? Maybe for the time being. But Mr. Whitfield is pragmatic.

“You wouldn’t believe what’s on the Internet,” he says. “I’m constantly blown away by what you can buy.”

He’s talking about hacker sites. Mr. Whitfield knows that if electronics are used to arm an anti-theft system, then electronics can also defeat it. Surprisingly, or not, depending on your point of view, much of the car thief’s hi-tech arsenal is readily available for purchase online. All major credit cards are accepted.

However, like Rob Whitfield, Derek Schumann, President of Trilogix, also claims that no vehicles with his IMB-2000 system have been successfully stolen either.

“There’s no doubt that immobilizers work,” he says, “But really, I believe it’s the threat of the device that’s important. It can take hours to defeat an immobilizer, so why even try?”

What he’s suggesting is that even if your car has a rudimentary system with a flashing LED, car thieves are likely to leave it alone.

“Think about it,” continues Mr. Schumann, “It’s dark. You’ve broken into a car. Now you’re on your back, with your feet up and your head under the dash. You’re trying to sort out what kind of anti-theft device is there. All the wires are the same colour — black. You’ve got a flashlight in your teeth. You need nerves of steel for this. So why bother? Why not just go to a car without a theft deterrent?”

He does have a point. As more cars come from the factory with sophisticated immobilizers, thieves turn their attention to easier pickings. Best choice is the vehicle with no hint of anti-theft technology.

VICC’s Henning Norup concurs: “Because of the effectiveness of the new anti-theft systems, the focus is moving to older cars without these devices.”

Maybe that’s where systems like The Boomerang come in — a little stealth technology to surprise the bad guys.

Then again, if they really want your car, they can simply tow it away, maybe jamming its distress signal as your pride-and-joy is hauled indelicately down the street.

Towing accounts for small percentage of thefts, although these are likely the targets of organized gangs, and less likely to be recovered.

For the rest, the VICC is offering good advice based on solid research. If you need an effective theft deterrent, get an immobilizer. Make sure it’s passively armed, and that it uses a special key or code to disarm it. A separate power supply for the unit is recommended. You can see the full details of a VICC approved system on their website at vicc.com, or get a free brochure by calling 1-800-761-6703.

One more thing: If you get an immobilizer, just make sure it’s got a flashing light!

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