What's the Point of Car Alarms If Nobody Calls the Cops?

By: Dave Roos
It's not necessarily the fancy cars that need a car alarm. Daniel Allan/Getty Images

My buddy Mark lives in Chicago and loved his 1999 Honda Civic hatchback. Thieves loved it, too. Apparently, a late-'90s Civic is worth far more than its Blue Book value in parts alone. That explains why multiple people have pulled up next to him at stoplights and offered to buy the hatchback on the spot. Maybe he should have taken them up on the offer.

The first time the Civic was stolen, the cops quickly recovered it a few blocks away. The second time, Mark wasn't so lucky. My friend went out to search for the car himself and found it about a mile from his apartment under an overpass, stripped of its engine and missing the entire front paneling. Now Mark takes the train.


Mark's Civic didn't have a car alarm, because like most of us, he assumed that alarms were a waste of money. If you live in a big city, falsely triggered car alarms are as common as pigeons (and just as loathed). A blaring car alarm in Chicago barely raises an eyebrow. There's even a name for it — "alarm fatigue."

But does our collective disdain for car alarms mean that they aren't effective? We talked to Chris McGoey, a 33-year veteran security consultant and host of the Crime School podcast. He admits that we all have alarm fatigue to some degree, but thinks that alarms still have their place.

"Car thieves will tell you, they don't like the noise," says McGoey. "They don't like the attention that it draws. But it depends on the quality of the car thief. If it's just an amateur car thief, the alarm goes off, they're gone. To that extent they work."

Professional car thieves, on the other hands, don't even worry about alarms. McGoey says the pros can either disable the alarm quickly or use a number of tactics — including dummy sets of keys and tow trucks — to circumvent the alarm system altogether. 

When an Alarm Makes Sense

According to Interpol, the international law enforcement organization, car thefts worldwide can be divided into two distinct categories: 1) widely available older cars ("quantity") and 2) higher-end and luxury cars ("quality").

Mark's 1999 Civic fits squarely in the "quantity" category, the type of car that's irresistible to young, street-level car thieves. Parts for older, widely available cars are in high demand. Plus, most cars built before the year 2000 can still be hot-wired.

"The old cars are a piece of cake," McGoey says. "In modern cars, all the keys have a chip built into them. That chip has to be married up to the ignition. You can't go in there and break off the steering wheel column like you would in the old days. The car won't start."

If low-level car thieves are more likely to be spooked by car alarms, then it's worth figuring out if your car is attractive to low-level car thieves. First, check if your car is one of the 10 most-stolen in America. That's a sure sign you're in the "quantity" category. According to LoJack's 2016 Vehicle Theft Recovery Report, the most-stolen makes and models are:

1.    Honda Civic

2.    Honda Accord

3.    Toyota Camry

4.    Toyota Corolla

5.    Chevy Tahoe

6.    Nissan Altima

7.    Cadillac Escalade

8.    Ford F250

9.    Acura Integra

10. Chevy Silverado

Again, older model years are the easiest to swipe and have the highest demand for parts. McGoey's rule of thumb is, "Look at the most popular cars today. They'll be the most stolen cars in the country 10 years from now."

Another hugely important factor is where you live. According to statistics from the FBI and the National Insurance Crime Bureau, big cities routinely have the highest total number of car thefts, but that's because there are lots of cars in big cities. A more useful statistic is car thefts per capita.

In that category, California is king. California is home to eight out of the 10 metropolitan areas with the most cars stolen per person. In 2015, Los Angeles held the title for the most cars stolen nationwide (52,559), but the smaller Central Valley cities of Modesto, Bakersfield and Salinas had far greater theft rates per capita. Another unexpected capital of car theft is Albuquerque, New Mexico, No. 2 in the country for stolen cars per resident. 

There might be a simple explanation for this geographical clustering of theft rates. According to a 2012 report from the Department of Justice, one-third of all cars stolen in the United States were stolen from four states: California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. That's because there's a lucrative trade in stolen cars and parts directly into Mexico. Although the smuggling rings are operated by large criminal organizations, the cars themselves are mostly stolen by "juveniles," concluded the report.

So, if you drive a popular Japanese-made car that's more than a decade old and you live within a few hours' drive of the border, it's probably worth investing in a highly visible alarm system. The flashy decals alone might be enough to deter a thief scanning the aisles in the mall parking lot.

Whose Noise Is It, Anyway?

"If my car alarm goes off, I'm not expecting the nearest person walking by to say, ‘Oh my God, a car alarm's going off, I should go investigate!'" says Pearson. "As far as this idea that people are disregarding car alarms, I guess they should. It's not for them."

Security expert McGoey agrees. It's the job of law enforcement and security personnel to investigate alarms, not bystanders.

Fortunately, a car owner doesn't necessarily have to be in earshot to learn that his car is being broken into (or at least approached). Viper's latest security systems include instant notifications sent to the owner's smartphone or keys. (Other companies offer alarms with similar features, too.)