1 in 5 Stolen Vehicles Is Recovered, but 30% Come Back Damaged

1 in 5 Stolen Vehicles Is Recovered, but 30% Come Back Damaged

Nearly one in five vehicles is recovered after it's stolen. Unfortunately, returned cars don't always come back in one piece.
Man stealing a car at night

According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, there were 534,010 motor vehicle thefts in 2018, affecting 424,360 American households. That represents 4.3 out of every 1,000 households, a rate that has held fairly steady for the last five years.

But according to our analysis of incidents from the Uniform Crime Reporting Program, about 1 in 5 vehicles is eventually recovered, which is great news for drivers who don't have gap insurance to cover their remaining car notes, or who lack comprehensive coverage.

The downside? Nearly a third (30%) of drivers get their cars back with an average of $1,490 worth of damage.

Key findings

  • 20% of stolen vehicles in 2018 were recovered, taking an average of 11 days to be found.
  • 30% of recovered vehicles come back damaged. On average, the reported value of vehicle damage and vandalism is $1,490.
  • 12% of auto theft incidents result in an arrest. We found no correlation between vehicle recovery and arrest rates.

Differences by region: Cars in the Northeast are found faster, but less often

While about 20% of stolen cars are returned nationwide, we found that the odds of getting your car back varied widely from region to region. Drivers in the Midwest are the most likely to see their cars again, with 24% of cars being returned.

Bar chart comparing how often stolen vehicles are returned in different parts of the country

Bar chart comparing how often stolen vehicles are returned in different parts of the country

Meanwhile, only 15% of the cars in the Northeast are returned. The only upside for people in the Northeast is that their vehicles tend to be found more quickly. While an average returned car nationwide takes 11 days to be found, people in the Northeast get their vehicles back after just one week of looking, on average.

Cars of all values are targets, but the most expensive cars are stolen in the South

The average value of a stolen car is $8,303. That's much less than the typical sales price of a new car in the United States (nearly $39,000 in 2019, according to Kelley Blue Book). This suggests cars of all ages and car types are commonly stolen, not just flashy, brand-new cars just off the lot.

We found that cars stolen in the South tend to be the most expensive nationally — $1,844 more, on average. Trucks are proportionally more popular in the South than in other areas, and they have a higher average sales price than most other cars, at $41,000.

Car owners in the South also tend to carry higher car loans — a study by LendingTree (ValuePenguin's parent company) found that people in southern states have about $800 more in car debt than the average American. And if those borrowers don't have gap coverage, they'll be responsible for the difference between their car's value and what they owe — even if they are protected by comprehensive coverage.

Bar chart comparing the typical values of cars that are stolen and returned
Bar chart comparing the typical values of cars that are stolen and returned

Unfortunately, the average value of cars returned is generally less than the value of those stolen — just $7,894. This means that more expensive cars are less likely to be found than cheaper ones. The discrepancy is most pronounced in the South, where a typical recovered car is worth 11% less than the average among all those stolen.

The only exception is the Midwest, where the typical returned car is actually slightly higher than the typical car. The difference is slight, though. Just $31.

Recovered cars in the West are most likely to be damaged

Unsurprisingly, not every recovered car comes back in the same condition. As much as 29% of recovered cars suffer some kind of damage or vandalism while they are missing. Returned cars in the western U.S. are nearly twice as likely to come back damaged than in the Northeast and Midwest, however.

Among all reports of damage or vandalism to cars in 2018, the typical cost to repair is $1,490. However, there's a significant difference in cost by region. We found that car damage in the Northeast was the most expensive by far: The average cost to repair vandalism or damage there was $2,668 in 2018, which is 2.5 times more than in the western U.S.

Car owners whose returned cars have been damaged may be eligible to receive payment from their car insurance companies if they carry comprehensive coverage. This coverage pays to repair or replace a car if it's damaged by something other than a collision (as well as if the car is stolen and not returned). However, comprehensive isn't a legally mandatory coverage — it's optional unless your lender requires it as a condition of your lease or loan.

Police are more likely to find your car than find the thief — and one won't necessarily lead to the other

Car theft is among the crimes least likely to be solved by police. We found that only about 12% of reported car thefts resulted in arrests nationwide. Even in the South, where arrests are most likely to be made, only 14.6% of cases end in arrests.

Interestingly, the Midwest has the lowest rate of arrests, at just 9.9% of all cases — despite the fact that you're much more likely to get your car back there than in other regions. And the Northeast is the region with the second-highest arrest rate, at 14.2%, even though car theft victims in that area are the least likely to have their vehicle returned nationwide.

Overall, we didn't find a very strong correlation between the likelihood of a car recovery and an arrest. This suggests that finding the car does not have a strong impact on whether the police are able to apprehend the culprit, or vice versa.

Methodology

Analysts aggregated sample data of over 49,000 car thefts in 2018 reported by local agencies to the Federal Bureau of Investigation under the Uniform Crime Reporting Program and available on a incident basis by state on the Crime Data Explorer.

Sources

Matt is a Technical Writer at ValuePenguin who works on distilling the complex details of insurance into accessible advice. He previously created educational content at Grovo Learning and MarketSmiths Content Strategists. Matt's consumer-focused analysis of insurance has appeared in publications like CNBC, Yahoo Finance and the Miami Herald.

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