Car Stereo Theft: A Dying Crime

David Brown

"People don't steal factory radios," says David Brown, owner of Savvy Mobile Electronics in Washington, D.C., one of the city's oldest car stereo shops. "There's no market." Laura Sullivan/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Laura Sullivan/NPR
Gary Corum

Gary Corum installs a stereo at Savvy Mobile Electronics in Washington, D.C. Few car owners bother to upgrade their stereos anymore. Laura Sullivan/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Laura Sullivan/NPR

With all the bad news about property crime and the economy, many people are ready to lock down their possessions and bolt the doors. But here's one problem you don't need to worry too much about: car stereo theft.

It's a crime that plagued car owners throughout the 1990s. But according to the FBI's latest crime report, car stereo thefts have fallen by more than half over the past 15 years, from more than a million in 1994 to just over 400,000, even as car theft rates have remained high.

Washington, D.C., police officer Mark Lakomec has seen a dramatic difference on the street. For 10 years, his job has been to spot stolen cars, which he does two to three times a night. In the 1990s, he said, every stolen car was missing the stereo. These days, he says thieves will take just about anything — umbrellas, sunglasses, even motor oil — but they leave the radio.

"You stand on the corner with a stereo in one hand with wires hanging out of it, and a GPS unit in the other," he said recently. "You're going to sell that GPS unit a lot quicker than that box of metal. I mean, who wants that? Who wants the hassle of having to put that in their car?"

Quality Factory Stereos

Criminologists and industry experts say the biggest reason stereo theft has declined is that car manufacturers started installing good stereos. In the late 1990s, companies realized that they could charge more for their cars if they installed a high-quality factory sound system.

And that, it turns out, made them theftproof.

"People don't steal factory radios," explained David Brown, owner of Savvy Mobile Electronics, one of the oldest — and last — stereo installation shops in D.C.

"There's no market for factory radios because they normally don't fit in any other cars," he said.

Brown said everyone needed a better stereo in the 1990s. Factory radios were lousy. But the aftermarket stereos that people bought to replace the factory-issued ones could easily transfer from one car to the next. For example, if thieves steal the factory stereo from a Volkswagen Jetta, they're going to need a buyer with a Volkswagen Jetta, and all a thief can offer is the stereo the owner had to begin with.

Cheap Imports

All along Brown's store walls are fancy stereos that most people no longer buy. Some good stereos from China now cost less than $100. Brown says that doesn't leave a thief a lot of room for profit. Fifteen years ago, he says, it was very different.

"The first CD changer by Sony was $1,500, and that was just the CD changer," he said. "That was not including the actual head unit to play it. Thieves — they wanted that, and they would steal things like that very easily."

It was so easy, Brown said, that most thieves could remove an aftermarket stereo in less than 10 seconds.

"We would bolt subwoofer boxes to the floor," he said. "We got to the point we were installing car radios in the glove box."

Brown also installed fake stereo boxes full of wires that looked like the stereo had already been stolen. There were also pullout car radios, which people carried around like purses. And removable faceplates — which people would invariably forget to remove.

Back then, thieves — and Brown — worked quickly.

"My record for installing a radio in a BMW was something like nine minutes," Brown said. "We used to have little contests back then."

Not anymore. Brown says in addition to cheap electronics from abroad and better factory radios, thieves have also encountered another problem: Cars are complicated.

"When you look at a new car now, and you look at the radio, it's like, I don't know how you can change that radio; I don't even see how you can take it out," he said.

Installing A Computer

Not many thieves can offer installation on a flip-screen navigation/video/stereo system with a Bluetooth-compatible computer interface operating over fiber optic cables. Done right, it should also be compatible with OnStar and a wireless router.

That new complexity has helped keep Brown in business. In addition to moving into computer and cell phone sales, he also does high-end custom work. And from time to time, there's an old car that needs a stereo.

On a recent day in the back of his shop, mechanics Gary Corum and Keith Brock were busy fixing the sound system on a 15-year-old green Dodge Caravan — the kind of car that missed the upgrade in factory stereos. From old damage to the dash, Corum says it looks like it's had one or two aftermarket stereos ripped out over the years.

Music In Stereo

As Corum gets the basic radio to work, you can hear what car manufacturers had to offer in the early 1990s: flat, crackly, uneven sound.

But it doesn't take long before he finds the wires to an amplifier hidden under the back seat, a subwoofer bolted to the floor and a couple of speakers that had lost their connection.

"That's much better, right?" Corum asks, pulling his head out from under the dash.

Rich, thumping music fills the car, as if it had just rolled off the factory floor.

Correction April 3, 2009

In some broadcasts, the introduction to this story said, "We're hearing that the bad economy is likely to increase crime." We should have said, "We're hearing that the bad economy is likely to increase property crime."

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