Kids drive up car crime

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Cartoon of car burglar

Jake is like a lot of young people; he loves cars. But where Jake is different is that the cars he loves belong to other people.

After falling in with the wrong crowd, he broke into his first car two years ago. He soon graduated to stealing cars for joyriding and soon his only friends were fellow car thieves. The more Jake pinched, the greater his status in the group.

When he gets in those cars and guns them, Jake has no fear of high speeds, driving on the wrong side of the road or running red lights. He’s oblivious to the fact that he might kill himself or someone else.

Since he began his crime spree, Jake (not his real name) has been arrested 29 times for 77 offences. He has done time, but doesn’t care about that either.

Jake is just 13.

Unfortunately, he is not alone: A recent report from the National Motor Vehicle Theft Reduction Council (NMVTRC) notes: “In larger Australian cities it is not uncommon for a ‘proficient’ young thief to have stolen more than 300 cars by his or her late teens.”

Upping the odds

There are two ways to increase the odds of having your car stolen by someone like Jake, says NMVTRC executive director Ray Carroll.

One is to leave the keys where a thief can easily get them, say in the ignition when buying fuel or hanging from a hook near your unlocked back door.

Or own a pre-2000 Nissan Pulsar.

The perils of the first are self-explanatory, the second less so. But old Pulsars are a particular prize for a small, “discerning” group of car thieves. In the past 12 months, says Mr Carroll, one in every 18 pre-2000 Pulsars was pinched.

The culprits, largely, are a loose collective of young people who’ve tagged themselves the Nissan Kings. Connected through social media, there’s a constant contest of one-upmanship to see how many they can steal.

“Pulsars didn’t get an immobiliser until 1999, so you can just jump in with a screwdriver, jam it in the ignition and drive off straight away.” And perhaps, he suggests, it’s a “poor teenagers’ trickle-down” from the allure of the sporty but less obtainable Nissan GTR, aka the ‘Godzilla’.

Brazen and brutal

In the two risk scenarios is a concise summary of the current state of car theft in Victoria.

As the modern fleet of vehicles has become more sophisticated and secure, criminals have adapted and grown both more brazen and brutal. Increasingly they grab high-end cars in car-jackings or burglaries or home invasions. The car’s own keys are used in more than 70 per cent of late-model thefts.

Others, stymied by the complexities and immobilisers of modern vehicles, target older vehicles ripe for traditional “coat-hanger and dipstick” entry. And in both cases, self-styled gangs are among the perpetrators.

After years of decline, motor vehicle theft is unfortunately on the rise again. NMVTRC figures show that in the 2015-16 financial year, vehicle theft in Australia increased by 7 per cent, with 54,094 vehicles stolen – a rate of one theft every 10 minutes.

But what has fuelled the unexpected rise? Mr Carroll is unequivocal: “What’s doing it is Victoria.”

In Victoria, the incidence of what the NMVTRC describes as short-term theft – stealing personal and light commercial vehicles for joyriding, transport or committing other crimes – jumped an unprecedented 38 per cent in the past financial year, and is up 42 per cent from five years ago.

The state also saw “profit-motivated theft” – essentially, turning stolen cars into cash as scrap or parts, through “rebirthing” or illegal export overseas – rise by 27 per cent last year.

In all, 21,929 vehicles were stolen in 2015-16, an overall increase of 30.3 per cent.

“Victoria is responsible for wiping out any decreases anywhere else and lifting the national rate,” says Mr Carroll. “A rise of 38 per cent in short-term theft in one 12-month period is just massive.”

The surge begins

Police, the NMVTRC and other observers had noted an increase in car theft in Victoria early in 2014, and at first they assumed it was a statistical blip. Instead, says Mr Carroll, it was the start of a very significant change in the methodology of car thieves.

“It is being driven by an incredible upsurge in youth crime – high-rate young offenders stealing very many cars. It grew so quickly that police and the justice system are trying to play catch-up and get back on top of it.”

In response, Victoria Police chief commissioner Graham Ashton assigned assistant commissioner Robert Hill organisational, state-wide responsibility for vehicle-related theft in 2015. While record numbers of offenders are being arrested, Mr Hill says the latest crime data presents a disturbing picture.

In 2015, for the first time, Victoria surpassed NSW as the leading state for vehicle theft, accounting for three of every 10 cars stolen in Australia, with more than 50 cars stolen every day. And we top the nation in having our cars broken into, with 55,000 incidents of theft from vehicles – a number that is significantly under-reported.

“The big concern is that we have a small group of young people – and the number is shrinking – that are committing a larger number of offences,” Mr Hill says.

Among these are the “gangs”, such as Apex, that have received so much publicity. Much less organised than media reports suggest, they are, though, often connected through social media and indulge in a pattern of what criminologists call “networked offending”.

‘Modern-day gangsters’

Disconnected from family or community, they see their allegiance to their “gang” community, says Mr Hill. And, as part of that community, there’s prestige and kudos in stealing cars and committing other crimes: “Some of them see it as living the life of a modern-day gangster, as a badge of honour.”

Many of the offenders have a teenager’s sense of invulnerability, adds Mr Carroll. The media outcry not only fuels community angst but the momentum of their offending: “They’re not worried about killing themselves in a high-speed crash or getting caught; they’re not worried about going into juvenile detention.”

The car thief’s “change in methodology” includes alarming new trends in the way cars are stolen, and a rise in associated violence. For years the auto industry has worked to target-harden cars with sophisticated security. Nationally, more than 8 in 10 cars are protected by an engine immobiliser.

“But that’s driven a situation where the only way you can steal a modern car is to get the keys,” says Michael Case, manager of vehicle engineering in RACV’s Public Policy department.

Car thieves have adapted, he says, driving a criminal boom in car-jackings; deliberate low-speed rear-end impacts after which drivers are threatened or assaulted for their cars; and aggravated burglaries – often with violence – to demand and steal keys and cars.

The crime chain

Mr Hill notes another change. “Once upon a time, you would have the one theft of a motor car reported, but now we’re seeing offenders steal a car, steal a set of plates to mask the fact that the car’s stolen (stolen plates account for a quarter of all thefts from vehicles), drive through a petrol station to steal fuel, go and commit an aggravated burglary or robbery using that vehicle and then, finally, incinerate it. There’s this chain of events with multiple counts of offending.”

About 70 per cent of theft falls into the short-term category – vehicles that are stolen for a reason other than the car itself – but Mr Hill says: “About 25 to 30 per cent of cars that are stolen, the owners never see them again. Those are the ones that are rebirthed, either broken down as scrap metal or parts or shipped overseas, in some cases as a complete item.”

There are simple ways to reduce your chance of becoming a victim, he says. (See the list of tips opposite.) As Mr Hill points out: “People shouldn’t be fearful, they should be alert.”

Mr Carroll points out the statistical chance of being a car theft victim is quite small: “Overall we’re talking about 3.4 cars stolen per 1000 registered vehicles in Victoria and the chances of being a victim of a violent car theft is very much smaller.

“On the other side of the coin, the impact of a car-jacking or home invasion is so great that the reasonably small number has still caused huge community concern. It’s low probability but high impact and ripples out to a general fear of crime across the community.”


Story: Gary Tippet
Published in RoyalAuto Feb 17



  • If you have off-street parking (even better if it’s behind lockable gates or in a garage), use it.
  • When out, park in a well-lit area or in secure carparks.


  • Opportunistic thieves will break into a car – usually by smashing a window – if they see something inside that they think might be valuable. So never leave things such as bags, briefcases, wallets, even sunglasses in view in an unattended vehicle. Put a portable sat-nav device out of sight, and remember to clean the suction-cap mark from the windscreen to remove evidence that such a device might be somewhere inside.
  • Never leave keys in the ignition when you’re away from the vehicle, even only for a few moments such as when paying for fuel.


  • Thieves now target keys to get a car. Don’t leave yours lying around your home when you’re out or even at night. Don’t have an address tag on your keys – mark them with your licence or mobile number instead.


  • Any car sold in Australia from 2001 onwards must be fitted with an Australian Standard-approved engine immobiliser. Older cars without that protection can be upgraded with an immobiliser fitted by an authorised service centre for as little as $220. Get a list of fitters at


  • Owners of older cars should be encouraged to fit an Australian Standard approved immobiliser.
  • Dealers and service centres in Victoria should fit anti-theft number plate screws on all vehicles sold or during servicing and repairs.
  • Vehicle manufacturers and importers should be encouraged to adopt cost-effective vehicle and component-marking technologies.
  • Consider installing CCTV security cameras and a monitored alarm system in your home to help deter thieves from entering to steal your car keys.



  • There were 999 vehicle theft claims to RACV Insurance in Victoria in 2015.
  • Thefts peaked in August, with 111 claims.
  • The City of Greater Geelong had the most theft claims (88), followed by Brimbank (76) and Casey (69).
  • Vehicle thefts are most frequent between 6am and noon (exact times of theft are not usually known by claimants).
  • The average cost of a claim was $12,084.
  • In 2015, RACV paid out more than $12 million for vehicle theft claims.

Source: RACV Insurance

Published in RoyalAuto Feb 17

Broken car window
Hand reaching through a broken window
Hand playing with toy car