What Car Thieves Think of the Club

In the SuperFreakonomics chapter on global warming, we describe pollution as a negative externality, a cost that is generally borne by someone other than the party producing the waste. In so doing, we discuss the difference between two anti-theft devices for cars, the Club and LoJack. Because LoJack is a hidden device and thieves cannot therefore know which cars have it and which don’t, it cuts down on overall theft. Which means it produces the rare positive externality. The Club, meanwhile, works in the opposite manner:

The Club is big and highly visible (it even comes in neon pink). By using a Club, you are explicitly telling a potential thief that your car will be hard to steal. The implicit signal, meanwhile, is that your neighbor’s car – the one without a Club – is a much better target. So your Club produces a negative externality for your non-Club-using neighbor in the form of a higher risk that his car will be stolen. The Club is a perfect exercise in self-interest.

Having read this passage, a man named Jim Burns wrote in with an interesting background story:

Back in the ’90s, I was working as a design engineer for Chrysler. I had responsibility for key cylinders and door latches. At that time auto theft rates in Europe were increasing and driving the insurers to put pressure on the Euro governments to require increased theft deterrence devices on all new cars. As part of our attempt to figure out where best to invest our design dollars, we hired some professional car thieves to provide a more hands-on perspective than us engineers had (well, maybe not all of us).

At some point, the Club was mentioned. The professional thieves laughed and exchanged knowing glances. What we knew was that the?Club is a hardened steel device that attaches to the steering wheel and the brake pedal to prevent steering and/or braking. What we found out was that a pro thief would carry a short piece of a hacksaw blade to cut through the plastic steering wheel in a couple seconds. They were then able to release The Club and use it to apply a huge amount of torque to the steering wheel and break the lock on the steering column (which most cars were already equipped with). The pro thieves actually sought out cars with The Club on them because they didn’t want to carry a long pry bar that was too hard to conceal.

Ah, the beauty of unintended consequences. And do not pass too quickly over the fact that a car company hires car thieves for consultation. If you are a businessperson, do you regularly engage those who wish to do you harm? If you are an intellectual, do you regularly sit down with those who wish to call you names?

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  1. Eric M. Jones says:

    A police detective friend of mine told me that car thevery would be easy to stop if anyone cared. The auto sales people (used and new) and one would suspect the insurance companies silently campaign again better approaches to car theft.

    The Club might work if the steering wheel were made of a 1/2″ hunk of hardened steel, but it is usually plastic with a steel wire inside. Easy to defeat.

    Surely tracking devices should enable us to find chop shops. When I lived in LA an auto recycling yard worked like crazy all night long. I wonder what they were doing?

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  2. jeffreytg says:

    This makes sense but only with regards to so-called “professional thieves”. This rate of theft for Club equipped autos may or may not be higher than cars without the Club depending on:

    1. What percentage of cars are stolen by professional thieves?
    2. What percentage of cars are stolen by non professional thieves?
    3. At what rate are professional thieves encouraged by the Club?
    4. At what rate are non professional thieves discouraged by the Club?

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  3. jonathan says:

    Your chapter also left out the more obvious point that doesn’t require technical skill of thievery: the club is a sign that the car doesn’t have an immobilizer or other anti-theft device built in. It’s an advertisement that the only thing the thief needs to overcome is this simple device. I learned that years ago from talking to cops.

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  4. Rich Wilson says:

    “If you are a businessperson, do you regularly engage those who wish to do you harm?”

    I think that’s a poor analogy. Car thieves aren’t trying to harm anyone, they’re trying to steal a car. I think the car companies sat down with someone who could help their business. I would hope an intellectual would be willing to sit down with someone who had criticisms of their position.

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  5. Sushi says:

    Most modern vehicles now have electronic ignition locks with, I believe, an RFID chip in the key.

    This makes them very difficult to hotwire and steal by driving away (although they could still be rolled onto a flatbed and taken to a chop shop).

    I would like to see a Freakonomics analysis of whether car theft has declined because of these chips and, if so, why insurance rates haven’t fallen accordingly.

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  6. Yasha says:

    Further to #2, I figure if a pro wants my car, he’s going to get it regardless. So I have a Club, which I use to make my car less desirable to non-pros.

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    • Cameron says:

      You’re assuming that “non-pros” don’t use the strategy outlined by the pros in this article. I don’t think your Club is fooling ANYONE into thinking your car is protected. A fake sticker for an alarm system will probably do you more good. The Club will not really slow your vehicle’s theft, and can actually make your car seem MORE desirable to opportunistic thieves who haven’t come prepared with a crowbar for the steering column, not to mention alerting the criminals to the fact that the only protection your car has is a piece of metal poorly connected to your plastic steering wheel.

      If you want to protect your car from theft, install a killswitch for your ignition. It doesn’t allow the car to be started unless the switch is pressed. Mine is mapped to the AM/FM button on my stereo :)

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  7. cjc says:

    @Eric M. Jones

    Making the steering wheel a “1/2″ hunk of hardened steel” is probably a safety hazard. Like anything else here, you’d have to consider whether reducing the chances your car is stolen is worth an increase risk of severe injury or death in the event of an accident.

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  8. Ray says:

    “And do not pass too quickly over the fact that a car company hires car thieves for consultation. If you are a businessperson, do you regularly engage those who wish to do you harm?”

    Car thieves don’t want to do “harm” to car companies; they want to steal cars. If anything, car companies stand to benefit somewhat from theft. For every stolen car, there is an owner who needs a new car. Heck, an argument could be made that car companies would benefit more by making cars easier to steal.

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