A thief uses a laptop computer, possibly to pair his own key to the Jeep's electronic ignition.

Police in Houston have finally nabbed two suspected crooks responsible for a rash of more than 100 car thefts. But what’s worrying authorities is that they introduced a new, high-tech wrinkle into their toolbox.

According to police, the pair used a laptop computer and software intended to allow Fiat Chrysler dealers to work on vehicles without having the owner’s key. There’s growing concern that sophisticated cyber-thieves are finding new ways to steal vehicles, something that could lead to a surge in car thefts after two decades of decline.

Even though the numbers have been falling, FBI statistics show that about 500,000 cars, trucks and crossovers are stolen each year – about one every 44 seconds. And, all too often, owners make it all too easy – the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reporting that roughly half of all car thefts are the result of owner error.

But there are a number of ways to ensure your vehicle won’t become part of the statistics. Insurance company GEICO suggests that some of the most effective steps are:

  • Lock your car. A surprising number of motorists not only leave their vehicles unlocked but leave the keys inside the vehicle. When exiting, secure the vehicle: close the windows, lock the doors, take the keys and, if you have one, activate the car alarm;
  • Never leave your vehicle running unattended. Sure, it may take you less than a minute to run up to the mailbox, or to dash inside to pay for gas, but it can take a thief even less time to jump in and drive off with your vehicle;
  • Pick your parking spot carefully. Choose a spot that’s well lit and, if possible, secured and attended, even if it costs a few extra dollars
  • Don’t give a thief a reason to smash-and-grab. Many thieves won’t target your vehicle, just the valuables you’ve left inside, like a wallet or a computer bag. Take them with you or hide them in the trunk;
  • Keep ownership papers, like the vehicle registration, in your wallet or hidden where thieves won’t readily find them.

Common sense and new technology are the best ways to prevent your car from being stolen.

You might also consider adding some of the new anti-theft features to your vehicle, like a stolen vehicle recovery system that can quietly help police track the car if it does get stolen. Some systems even will let authorities shut the car down remotely. Several automakers now build high-tech anti-theft systems, like OnStar, into the vehicle. Check with the manufacturer to see if your car has one of these services or consider adding it when you trade in.

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The good news is that many insurers will give you a discount if you have one of these systems so, after a few years, it may have paid for itself.

These days, thieves often take the vehicles they’ve stolen to chop shops. Rather than reselling your car, they’ll strip off the most valuable parts for resale. You can foil them by having key parts, including windows and sheet metal etched with the Vehicle Identification Number. Authorities say that if a thief spots those markings on your car they just may go looking for another target.

While most thieves prefer to work quietly and quickly, avoiding any possible trouble, carjackings have become a major problem, with a number of motorists injured, even killed. GEICO suggests that, “If confronted by a carjacker, do not resist. Cars can be replaced; you can’t.”

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Another tip to consider if you want to avoid become a car theft victim: you might want to steer clear of vehicles that are frequently stolen. The good news is that today’s high-tech vehicles have made it harder for thieves to break in and steal your vehicle. The bad news is that crooks often are looking for older vehicles, anyway, hoping to get parts they can sell through unscrupulous repair shops.

That means they’re often going for older vehicles that are widely available and may need to replace things like a dented fender, a busted taillight or a malfunctioning starter motor.

Older, high-volume imports typically top the list, notably the 1996 Honda Accord and 1998 Honda Civic which, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, were the two most stolen vehicles last year, accounting for a combined total of more than 100,000 cars.

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Among new models, Toyota accounted for two models last year, the Camry and Corolla, while General Motors had four models on the Top 10 list: the Chevrolet Cruze, Impala and Malibu, along with the GMC Sierra. Fiat Chrysler had two: the Chrysler 200 and the Dodge Charger. Rounding out the list were the Hyundai Sonata and Nissan Altima.

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