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?

Eric M. Jones

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?


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?


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.

Rich Wilson

"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.


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.


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.


@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.


"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.


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

It is also worth considering that perhaps those who wish you harm will not give you true advice! If I was a car thief hired by a car company I would loudly dismiss any prevention measure that worked and supply a glib story about how bad it is, hoping that it would become an urban legend and do away with the offending device.

Just saying....


Lots of (somewhat) reformed hackers work for security and computer companies. Journalists regularly interview (or field calls) from people who obviously loathe them. And then there are the poor customer service reps, who are hated by everyone.


Rich Wilson #4,

I don't see that they're the same thing at all. Trivializing car theft by saying it "doesn't harm anyone" is pretty callous. Of course the theft of a large (and often valuable) possession hurts its owner! It's not the same as being assaulted or murdered, but it still represents the loss of an asset and increased difficulties in going about normal life.

Sitting down with someone to discuss a difference of opinion is hardly the same thing as hiring a former criminal as a consultant. The act of disagreeing usually doesn't harm anyone physically or financially. Hiring people who engaged in illegal behavior for the purpose on consulting about that kind of behavior is a bit more of a gray area. While it's great to get insight into their motives and methods, it's still rewarding someone for criminal behavior.


@Eric (#1):
No, it still wouldn't work. A former car thief once told me that all he did was pour a little liquid nitrogen on the lock and shatter it with a hammer.


When hiring professional thieves as consultants it is very important to keep an eye on the numbers and the hiring procedures. You don't want to hire too many or you could end up like Wall Street...

bob johnson

Eric, why would insurance companies "silently campaign against better approaches to car theft?"

They pay out less when fewer cars are stolen.

Bruce Sanders

In Illinois where I live they have just started to installing a large number of "Photo Enforced" stop lights where a picture is taken of your license plate if you run a red light and you are sent a ticket via mail. I wonder if anyone has studied what happens to driver behavior once these "Photo Enforced" stop lights are installed. Do fewer drivers run red lights that are NOT "Photo Enforced" out of fear that they may get caught by hidden cameras? During the transition time, do rear-end collisions increase because someone ahead of you is stopping for a red light they may not have stopped for before? Over the long run, do these "Photo-Enforced" stop lights improve safety or are they just a source of funds for the state


@Sushi, #5:

Car theft continues, but now with immobilizers thieves look to steal the keys by breaking into people's homes, snatching purses, or carjacking, rather than hotwiring the car in the driveway or parking lot.

Also, theft coverage is usually a small part of the insurance premium -- liability/medical coverage makes up the bulk of the cost.

Rich Wilson

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.


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.

Bobby G

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.

Kocsen Chung

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.