According to data from the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ), motor vehicle thefts have increased by 59% from 2019 to 2022. Fortunately, anti-theft systems and car trackers give drivers a number of options to prevent car theft. Today, we’re exploring five of the most common anti-theft systems to keep your vehicle safe, and how car trackers can help you keep track of your vehicle — regardless of its location.

A photo of a thief breaking into a car.

5 Common Anti-Theft Systems (& How They Work)

To begin, let’s discuss some common anti-theft systems, how they work, and why they’re effective.

Window Security Film

An oft-overlooked anti-theft measure, window security film can make it more difficult for thieves to gain access to your vehicle. Window security film, apt to the name, makes car windows more resistant to shattering and forced entry attempts. 

How It Works: Window security film is typically made of multiple layers of polyester material, bonded with adhesive. Car owners (or mechanics) can apply the film to window interiors, creating a durable barrier. When an impact occurs, the film helps hold the shattered glass together, preventing it from breaking apart as easily.

Why It’s Effective: Window security film makes breaking into a vehicle more difficult by enhancing the durability of car windows — a favored entry point among car thieves. In addition to their anti-theft benefits, window security films provide increased privacy. Car owners can tint window security film, making it harder for potential thieves to see valuables inside the vehicle.

Steering Wheel Locks

Steering wheel locks are a simple yet effective car anti-theft system. Attaching a lock to your steering wheel makes it nearly impossible to steer the car while the wheel is locked, rendering it undrivable. 

How It Works: Steering wheel locks consist of a sturdy metal bar that extends across the wheel, locking it in place. Some models also have additional features, such as alarms or immobilizers, to further discourage theft.

Why It’s Effective: Steering wheel locks are visible through untinted windows, so potential thieves may be aware of them before attempting a forced entry. Seeing a steering wheel lock alone can deter thieves who don’t know how to (or don’t want to spend the time) bypassing them.

A steering wheel lock as an anti-theft system.

Electronic Immobilizers

Many modern cars come equipped with electronic immobilizers, preventing the engine from starting without the correct key. This technology makes hotwiring a vehicle significantly more difficult, so it’s a great car-theft deterrent – especially when coupled with a more visible anti-theft system, like a steering wheel lock or window security film. According to a 2016 study, car alarms reduced the overall rate of automobile theft by around 40% over 10 years.

How It Works: Electronic immobilizers use a microchip embedded in a car key that enables the key to communicate with the vehicle’s engine control unit (ECU). If the ECU does not recognize the key’s unique code upon a startup attempt, it denies startup, immobilizing the vehicle.

Why It’s Effective: Breaking into a car with an electronic immobilizer requires a prospective car thief to disable the immobilizer system or program a new key. Both processes are far outside the realm of capability for most car thieves. 

Car Alarms

One of the most common car anti-theft systems, car alarms alert those around the vehicle when a break-in attempt occurs with an auditory alarm (and today, most can also send an alert to the owner’s smartphone or a device of their choice). While various studies have found car alarms to be increasingly ineffective, experts think that’s largely because car owners and bystanders assume most alarms are false. If you want to get the most bang for your buck, check on your alarm whenever it goes off — even if it’s inconvenient.

How It Works: Car alarms use sensors to detect movement and vibrations near vehicles, as well as forced entry attempts. When triggered, alarms may emit a siren, flash the car’s lights, and send a notification to different devices the owner has.

Why It’s Effective: Car alarms draw attention to the vehicle and the would-be thief, making it more likely that someone will intervene or call the police. Additionally, thieves tend to avoid vehicles with good alarm systems since the noise and attention make it difficult to steal the car without being caught.

A photo of a mechanic installing a car alarm.

Smart Key Systems

Smart key systems are an advanced anti-theft technology that offers enhanced security and convenience for car owners. By replacing traditional keys with electronic fobs or even smartphone apps, smart key systems make it more challenging for thieves to access or start your vehicle.

How It Works: Smart key systems use wireless communication between a key fob or smartphone app and the vehicle’s onboard computer. When the smart key is a certain distance from the vehicle, it sends a unique encrypted code that the car’s computer recognizes, allowing the doors to unlock and the engine to start. 

Why It’s Effective: Smart key systems provide another layer of security, requiring the unique encrypted code from the fob or smartphone app to access and start the vehicle (similar to an electronic immobilizer). In addition, since smart key systems counteract traditional lockpicking and hotwiring methods, fewer thieves can get past them to complete a car theft.

A video of a GPS for a blog about car tracking.

Tracking Your Car: The Basics of Car Trackers

Car trackers are good for more than navigating crowded parking lots — if your vehicle gets stolen, they can help you (and the police) find it again more easily. Popular methods for tracking a car include:

  1. GPS Tracking: A GPS tracker uses a Global Positioning System (GPS) to determine the real-time location of a vehicle. The GPS sends location data to a central monitoring system that a vehicle owner can access via a smartphone app or website.
  2. OBD-II Trackers: Onboard diagnostics (OBD) is a vehicle’s self-diagnostic and reporting capability. OBD-II trackers plug into your car’s OBD-II port, typically under the dashboard, providing real-time location and diagnostic information.
  3. Smartphone Apps: Some smartphone apps allow you to track your vehicle’s location using the phone’s GPS capabilities. While less accurate than dedicated GPS or OBD-II trackers, they can be a cost-effective solution for anyone on a budget.

In Conclusion…

A combination of anti-theft systems, like steering wheel locks and window security film, combined with advanced technology such as electronic immobilizers, can provide a robust defense against car theft. Understanding the anti-theft and car tracking systems at your disposal enables you to make the best decisions for your vehicle and budget.

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