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. Rich Wilson says:

    Brooke #11
    I didn’t say no harm was done. I was talking about intent. The intent of the thief isn’t to harm the car company. The customers of the insurance company (including the owner of the car) are certainly harmed.

    But sitting down with a car thief isn’t like sitting down with someone who calls you names. Sitting down with a car vandal is like sitting down with someone who calls you names. I think it’s an important distinction. The thief doesn’t hold you any ill will, so there’s no reason they won’t give you good advice if you pay for it.

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  2. Renter says:

    Years ago my car’s seats were stolen from my Celica, at the time a top target in the parts re-sale market. I facilitated a conversation between my insurance adjuster and mechanic in which the adjuster quoted a price for factory seats that seemed amazingly low. Upon checking the source, my mechanic discovered that my insurance company (still a major provider in California) was purchasing stolen parts to settle theft claims.

    Bob J. asks why better anti-theft is not in the insurance companies’ best interest. The answer is that car theft keeps the claims and repair industry in business and keeps those insurance premiums rolling in. Without theft, the insurance market would be much smaller.

    I have no answer other than to pay the absolute legal minimum for insurance and not to covet or become attached to things other people want to steal.

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  3. Bobby G says:

    White-hat hackers, Dubner. Many security-software companies keep hackers on retainer to constantly try to break down their protective software, and each time they do they instantly release an update that fixes the problem.

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  4. Kocsen Chung says:

    There’s a famous saying that says: keep your friends close, and your enemies CLOSER. This example of hiring thieves to actually know the flaws and effectiveness of car theft prevention systems sounds great! You get to know whats wrong and then you get to fix it!

    However, “If you are a businessperson, do you regularly engage those who wish to do you harm?”
    I believe this is a bad analogy. Car thefts don’t want to evoke harm, they want to STEAL the car.
    A somewhat better analogy would be two competitive markets trying to find out information of each other in order to maximize each individuals profitutility.

    Ultimately, the best way to handle this situation is by making sure that your overall revenue is greater than the effort (cost) that you put into the task. It should also be noted that externalities are to be accounted for. Lets say you want to talk to Competetive Industry #2 (you being Competetive Industry #1) to find out information about their price and possibly arrange something out. Its pretty easy to find out what your enemy wants by arranging a meeting and you might end up winning money if it all goes good. But if Competetive Industry #2 betrays you, and you face great losses, suddenly, a negative externality arises leaving you with the burden. — Applied to cars, the thieves may tell you all about how they steal cars professionally, but you never know if you have been told all about it or if they themselves are acting for their own good by lying.

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  5. Gary says:

    And if you are a climate scientist do you regularly engage your critics to sharpen your thinking?

    Not so far…

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  6. Peter says:

    Airbag theft is a crime that feeds on itself. Airbags seldom if ever malfunction, and if a car is in a collision severe enough to blow the airbags the car will almost always have to be junked. As a result, the only people who would need to buy replacement – stolen – airbags are people whose airbags have been stolen.

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  7. weca says:

    Gary #21

    Off-topic; gratuitous. But then, religious devotees and other proselytizers/propagandists rarely pass on an opportunity to beset heretics, even if it requires violating norms regarding civil discourse and calm discussion.

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  8. Michael says:

    Ahhh, the urban legend of the “thieves always easily bypass The Club.” “Someone talked to a couple of guys who stole cars, and that proves it.”

    Never mind the statistical reality that thieves – thousands, not just the few in the apocryphal story – by and large choose cars based on ease of theft. The kinds of cars protected by Clubs tend to be common and inexpensive – enabling a thief to quickly move on to another instead of wasting time with a hacksaw.

    And where is your supporting evidence from police, showing that the “hacksaw method” is real and anything close to widespread? Surely it must be out there. C’mon, you make your living at this and you can’t be bothered to RESEARCH??

    The Freakonomics anti-science drive continues. Your brand devalues every time you do this.

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