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?


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

Not so far...


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.


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.


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.

Ian Kemmish

I don't know about cars, but how's this for an unintended consequence:

There's a house on the market near here that's pretty much my dream house. I can afford to pay cash for it, and in the current market conditions, I stand a good chance of getting it for a good price.

The one fly in the ointment? When I cycled past it a few weeks ago, there was a sign from a security company on the front gate. Now I'm not so sure.... why do they need to spend so much on security? Or is it a decoy? If I ask the current owner, will they tell me the truth?


13-- funny


If manufacturers wanted car theft to decline, they would simply make sufficient spare parts. They deliberately create a market for stolen parts, because this allows them to charge more for the parts they do make. Always look at who profits.

Eric M. Jones

@14- bob johnson:

"They pay out less when fewer cars are stolen."

Perhaps, but their profits would soar!

"Comprehensive Coverage" covers theft and while this is optional in most states, the car's financing loan demands the theft-insurance coverage.

If car theft were not a problem, repairs would cost more (stolen cars are used to repair damaged vehicles.) Insurance companies collect bigger premiums when there is a perceived or real problem. How do you think they got so big? Insurance companies (despite their TV ads) aren't in it to be kind.

My comments on the construction of steering wheels was only meant to illustrate how easily they can be broken. Yes, there are many reasons for the present-day construction. But the Club is not a good solution to car theft.

When I lived in the city my battery would get stolen every seven years on average. Saved me the cost of disposal.


"When I lived in the city my battery would get stolen every seven years on average. Saved me the cost of disposal."

Your car battery lasts 7 years?
That is amazing.
I think the "cost of disposal" (for the consumer) for an auto battery is now zero as they take your core in exchange when you buy a new one.
If you do not have a core they CHARGE you extra. So the battery thieves are not saving you any money.


Ok, sounds like a topic for Freakonomics to investigate: Is car theft beneficial or detrimental to a) the auto companies, and b) auto insurers?


@ Ian Kemmish #25: Go ahead and buy that house. Don't buy the house next door.


RE: car thief motivations
Car theives do not strictly want to "steal your car" instead of "harming you". They want to make a living of their choice using the knowledge they possess. If you can provide them that living while keeping them legit, they will likely not need to steal your car (assuming they have the presence of mind to replace the adrenaline rush with something that just endangers themselves).

25 - house alarm
It is possible the current owner is inherently paranoid or previously lived in problem neighborhoods. You could ask tangential questions to try to uncover this.
Also, if an area really is a problem, I would expect many of the houses to have security systems.
You could also investigate crime reports in the area.. I thought I had found a Google maps mashup previously, but what I found during a quick search didn't inspire confidence..
Good luck.

Rich Wilson

Nitrogen to break locks is another urban legend. The myth is common on bike U style locks, but Jobst Brandt tried to replicate the experiment and could not.
A quick search shows all kinds of claims, but no videos of anyone breaking a U lock with liquid nitrogen. Until I see it, or have someone reputable state that they've been able to do it, I remain unconvinced.

Hm, this would be a good one for the Mythbusters.


The only way to be 100% sure your car isn't stolen is to drive a 1973 rusted-out Ford Pinto with scores of religious bumper stickers and bald tires.

This has worked for me since...well, 1973.


I think it would be more difficult than you think to determine how many Club-equipped cars are stolen. If you own one, and the police ask if you had it installed at the time, you might say yes, even if you didn't, to avoid looking like an idiot ("you own one and didn't use it?").

My use of the Club, when I had one, is probably typical: I used it diligently for the first few months, then after awhile I only used it when I was parked in a "bad neighborhood." Eventually it wound up forgotten on the back seat, then in the trunk.

The true indicator: How many stolen cars are recovered with either a Club shattered from liquid nitrogen, or with an intact Club but a cut steering wheel?

I would guess almost none.

Jay Livingston

"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.." Is there any good evidence that supports this hypothesis? Or the hypothesis that Lojack is a good general deterrent? It's possible that there's a difference between what thieves actually do and what economists think they logically should do.


Is the presence of a security systems even remotely related to crime in the neighborhood? My experience is that it is a lot more related to income (rich people with spare cash) than crime.

And as far as the sign being a deterrent, the only stat I have seen is that houses with systems are 3 times less likely to be robbed. But that number doesn't tell you the whole story as if only rich people in safe neighborhoods can afford the monthly fee, you would expect the crime rate to be low in those houses.


Peter @ 12:50... No so. I've had two air bags go off in my cars and neither incident required more than a $300 bumper repair. Once was when a car hit my parked vehicle; the other was when a car spun into my front end after it had been t-boned in an intersection.


The one weakness with this article is the implicit assumption that most cars are stolen by "professionals". Actually, most car thieves are rank amateurs - often teenagers or drug addicts just looking to make $20 profit on the "transaction". These guys will likely be deterred by even the simplest anti-theft device as long as there is another car nearby without it.

There is an old camping joke about two people about to be attacked by a bear. One puts on his shoes to run for it. His companion points out that a bear is faster than a galloping horse and there is no way he can outrun it. The first camper says, "I don't need to outrun the bear. I just need to outrun you." The same principal applies to protecting yourself from theft.


Speaking of engaging those who wish to do you harm--

Hasn't the government hired a bunch of Wall Streeters to deal with the economy?