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Auto Theft Spikes This Time of Year – Can New Tech Protect Your Car?

Three Bay Area Startups Are Working to Catch and Deter Car Thieves

What to Know

  • The NICB says New Year's Day is the No. 1 major holiday for auto theft
  • California leads the nation in stolen cars; the Bay Area trends above national averages
  • Three Bay Area tech startups are working on solutions to deter and catch thieves

You might take a few days off for the holidays. But car thieves do not. In fact, more cars are stolen on New Year's Day than any other holiday.

That's according to a recent report by the National Insurance Crime Bureau, or NICB. Researchers found car thefts jumped 61 percent from a holiday low on Christmas Day, to nearly 2,500 stolen cars reported just a week later, on January 1 of last year.  California led the nation in holiday thefts, with more than 5,000 cars taken on the eleven holidays measured.

National Insurance Crime Bureau

Even if your ride remains safe, car thieves still cost all of us -- through higher auto insurance premiums.  The good news: we found three Bay Area tech startups working to make life much harder for auto thieves.

Owl Cam Lets Users Watch Thieves in Action

Owl Cameras, Inc. got its start just 11 months ago, in Palo Alto.  It was featured earlier this year on NBC Bay Area's tech program, Press:Here.  Founder and CEO Andy Hodge, whose background includes development of the original iPhone, says Owl Cam has already proved effective in its short time on the market.

"We've seen at least a few dozen car thieves be identified and arrested," Hodge said.

Perched atop the dashboard, the Owl Cam gives a bird's-eye view of your car's interior -- along with a forward traffic view over the hood. It records while driving, but also contains sensors that can recognize a break-in. Any sudden jolt starts the camera rolling -- catching thieves in the act.

That video live-streams to your phone. It's also stored in the cloud as evidence. That way, even if the camera itself is destroyed, the video is still accessible.

Hodge doesn't necessarily want to catch crooks on camera. He wants the Owl Cam to scare them away.

"We see a lot of people breaking into cars, and people send us the video," Hodge said. "You can tell, [the thieves] didn't know one of these existed. They look up, and they go, 'Oh!'"

Digital License Plate Warns Other Drivers: 'STOLEN'

Another new idea to fight real-life grand theft auto taps into California's quirky obsession with making statements on license plates. But these messages won't be driven by ego. It will literally spell out the crime that's taking place.

Reviver Auto in Foster City makes the Rplate -- a digital license tag.  CEO Neville Boston says the letters on the plate can change on the fly -- even if your car is in the wrong hands.

"We can actually show 'STOLEN' on the plate," Boston said. "Once you find out that your car is gone, we'll know where it is, because the Rplate has GPS.  It has an LTE connection."

If a thief tries to pry the plate off your bumper, you'll immediately get an alert. Reviver bets would-be car thieves will ignore anything sporting the Rplate.

"It's a huge deterrent," Boston said.

MetroMile Can Find Your Car in a Flash

Another gadget aims to combat car thieves in a roundabout way. San Francisco-based MetroMile sells auto insurance by the mile, which it tracks using a module called a Pulse.

"It just plugs into the diagnostic port, which powers it," said MetroMile CEO Dan Preston. "It just works."

The Pulse goes wherever your car goes, and like the Rplate, it uploads data via the same LTE technology used by your phone. If someone's taking an illegal joyride, MetroMile knows exactly where they took your car.

"You can just call us up, ask where the car is, and we help you find it," Preston said.

MetroMile tells NBC Bay Area it boasts a recovery rate of more than 92 percent for its clients' cars that were stolen. That's slightly better than the estimated recovery rate by California Highway Patrol, which says about 89 percent of stolen cars in the state are eventually found. However, CHP says just 65 percent will still be driveable. The rest are either stripped for parts, set on fire, or completely destroyed.

Prevention, Deterrence are Key

Preventing auto thefts before they happen is key, but technological solutions come with a price. Owl Cam costs $350 up front, plus $99 per year for data streaming. The Rplate can cost upwards of $700, plus a monthly data fee. MetroMile's rates vary, based on how much you drive.

There are some free steps you can take to protect your car:

  • Always lock the doors
  • Never leave anything in plain sight
  • Never leave valuables in the car
  • Always try to park in a busy, well-lit area
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