Chicago car thefts at 11-year high in 2023 before year’s over
Chicago set an 11-year record for car thefts with months still to go in 2023. Nearly 25,000 drivers through October failed to find their vehicles where they’d left them.
Car thefts are surging this year in Chicago, exceeding last year’s decade record count by September and hitting 24,709 cases by the end of October.
Hold on, because the final three months of the year are typically the busiest for car thieves.
“Even though it’s a crime against property, it’s still taking away peoples’ livelihoods,” said Matt Nalett, founder of a Facebook group that helps Chicagoans locate their stolen cars, much like a lost pet directory does. “They need that vehicle for their jobs and their kids and for everyday life. So that was the beginning of the Chicago Stolen Car Directory.”
Chicagoans reported a decade-high number of car thefts in 2022, with more than 7 victims for every 1,000 residents. Already in 2023 that rate is up to 9 vehicle thefts per 1,000. Both the state and national average were about 3 thefts per 1,000 residents last year.
“I’ve seen it happen where a person had their car stolen and they lost their job because they couldn’t get back and forth to work,” Nalett said. “I’ve seen cases where people can’t take their kids to day care because they don’t have car seats anymore.”
With 50% more car thefts this year compared to 2012, what’s happened to the arrest rate? It’s fallen to the lowest level in the past 11 years: 2.5% so far this year compared to 5.3% in 2012.
“Car thefts are low priority for the police, too,” Nalett said. “But the way I see it, it’s one less stolen car causing chaos around the city, being used to rob people or steal catalytic converters. They do that all the time and then dump the car somewhere. And you know, someone really needs that car. Those thieves don’t.”
Nalett’s crusade to get cars back to owners started when he was a rideshare driver.
“Years ago, I drove Über and I drove Lyft and there was a year where a lot of rideshare drivers were getting carjacked. I kept finding them all over the place with the Über or Lyft logos still on while I was working, usually dumped in empty lots,” he said. “I kept calling 911 and telling them there was a suspicious auto to come check out. I later found out almost every single one of these cars had been stolen.”
Online and social media gave him a way to help.
“I had to post the pictures somewhere where people could find these cars,” he said.
Overall, 62% of Chicago neighborhoods experienced an increase in motor vehicle thefts from 2012 to 2022. While the citywide rate was 7 thefts per 1,000 residents last year, the rate was over 32 thefts per 1,000 Englewood residents – 794 vehicles taken from one neighborhood. By the end of October 2023, 905 cars had been stolen in Englewood.
“At this point, I’ve seen cargo vans get stolen, old cars get stolen, new cars get stolen. I’ve seen everything and there’s really no discrimination,” Nalett said. “Anywhere you live, they’re going come and steal your car if they want. The thieves don’t care.”
The Streeterville neighborhood on the Near North Side just above the Loop saw the largest percent increase in vehicle thefts during the past decade, with cases surging from 12 in 2012 to 160 in 2022. The Avondale neighborhood on the Northwest Side, including the Irving Park community, reported the largest percentage drop – from 332 in 2012 to 136 last year.
“I see it nearly every day, and every car has a different story behind it,” Nalett said. “Some are stolen from peoples’ houses. Others are taken from gas stations while still running or sometimes the thieves will just shoot someone and then steal their car. Use it to commit other crimes like stealing catalytic converters or another shooting or robbery.”
While Nalett’s mission is to reunite cars and drivers, it’s a tough battle. Only 35% of stolen vehicles were recovered.
“Even if the car is returned, it’s still susceptible to being stolen again because the ignitions already been popped, and the back windows are usually still broken. I’ve seen a car stolen at least four times, same block,” Nalett said. “The driver then has to change their plate number, get new plates, fix their window and fix their ignition column.”
So why the spike in car thefts?
According to an investigation by CBS 2 News Chicago, 11,512 vehicles - or more than half of all automobiles stolen by the end of September 2023 were either Hyundai or Kias. This continues a trend started in 2022 when thieves began exploiting technical vulnerabilities in the auto manufacturers’ designs.
Combined, the number of Hyundai and Kia stolen by the end of September 2023 alone exceeded the total number of vehicles stolen during all of 2019.
“During the pandemic, somebody posted a video showing kids how to steal a Kia or Hyundai real quick as part of some social media challenge and since then, it’s like every other car stolen is a Kia or Hyundai,” Nalett said. “I’ve been seeing more young kids doing it too. The youngest I caught with a stolen car was just 14.”
That video on TikTok spurred a nationwide trend, of which Chicago is a part, an expert told CBS Chicago.
Nalett offered some advice to Chicagoans on what they can do to protect their cars from thieves during the busy car theft months.
“If you want to slow down people trying to steal your car, add preventive measures to your vehicle. You’ll want to get aftermarket security,” Nalett said. “It can be anything as cheap as a steering wheel lock or an alarm system like Copystar or Viper.”
“You can also go to a stereo or alarm shop and have them put a hidden kill switch in your vehicle so only you can turn it on or get an aftermarket GPS installed in your car to track it,” he said. “That’ll slow them down at least. It won’t necessarily prevent your car being stolen but it’ll slow them down.”
Addressing rising crime in Chicago starts with reducing the police officer shortage, providing adequate resources for judges determining whether to release or hold people ahead of trial, and ensuring witness protection so police are able to obtain vital information needed to identify and pursue criminals.