Image: USA, Utah, Salt Lake City, Homeless man breaking into car, side view © Jessica Peterson, the Agency Collection, Getty Images

The bad news for California drivers? Your state had the greatest number of hot spots in the country for auto thefts in 2011, according to a National Insurance Crime Bureau report released recently.

Fresno, Calif., was at the top of the list for the second year in a row. Modesto was second, also for the second straight year. Fresno and Modesto were among seven California metro areas that made the worst-10 rankings compiled by the NICB using federal, state and local crime statistics.

The NICB's "Hot Spots 2011" report uses vehicle theft data from the National Crime Information Center for each of the nation's metropolitan statistical areas. These areas are designated by the Office of Management and Budget and include areas much larger than the cities for which they are named. For example, the Fresno, Calif., metropolitan statistical area includes all thefts within the entire county of Fresno, not just the city of Fresno.

It wasn't all bad news in the annual report, though. The NICB says reported thefts fell nationwide for the second straight year, with preliminary FBI figures for 2011 showing a 3.3% drop from the 2010 total of 737,142.

Here's the full list, with the total number of stolen vehicles, thefts per 100,000 people and previous ranking:

  1. Fresno, Calif.: 7,621 total thefts, or 808 per 100,000 people (2010 ranking: 1)
  2. Modesto, Calif.: 3,315/639 per 100,000 (2)
  3. Bakersfield-Delano, Calif.: 5,240/615 per 100,000 (3)
  4. Spokane, Wash.: 2,614/552 per 100,000 (4)
  5. Yakima, Wash.: 1,308/529 per 100,000 (10)
  6. San Francisco/Oakland/Fremont, Calif.: 23,223/529 per 100,000 (9)
  7. Stockton, Calif.: 3,532/507 per 100,000 (7)
  8. Anderson, S.C.: 911/483 per 100,000 (33)
  9. Vallejo-Fairfield, Calif.: 2,002/481 per 100,000 (5)
  10. Visalia-Porterville, Calif.: 2,124/473 per 100,000 (8)

Protection can lower insurance rates

To better protect your ride, NICB spokesman Frank Scafidi recommends various anti-theft devices, from elaborate car alarms to simple steering locks you can buy at the local department store.

Aside from deterring crooks, the devices should earn you discounts on your insurance premiums. Although the savings differ from company to company and state to state, discounts should range from 15% to 20%, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.

Allstate, for example, offers a 10% anti-theft discount. Commerce, a smaller insurer, says on its website that the discount can reach 36% if you install an anti-theft device approved by the company.

Alarms and disabling devices are standard features on some vehicles. If you're uncertain about which anti-theft features your car has, check the owner's manual or call a dealer that's familiar with your car model. Some insurance companies, such as Esurance, will automatically apply a discount to your insurance quote if your car comes factory-equipped with anti-theft devices.

The following anti-theft devices are recommended by the NICB. Many will qualify you for a policy discount with major insurers, but ask your agent to make sure. Included below is the approximate cost for each item, along with a quote about its use and effectiveness from a recent NICB statement.

  • Audible alarms: "Alarms are typically equipped with motion or impact sensors which trigger a 120-decibel siren." Cost: $150 to $1,000.
  • Steering column collars: "Collars prevent thieves from 'hot-wiring' the vehicle. Some collars are installed permanently. Others must be continuously activated." Cost: $100 to $200 installed.
  • Steering wheel locks: "The lock is a metal bar designed to prevent the steering wheel from turning (and) is an excellent visible deterrent." Cost: $25 to $100.
  • Steering wheel/brake pedal locks: "Prevents depression of the brake pedal (and again) is a visible deterrent." Cost: $15 to $80.
  • Wheel locks: "Similar to the circular steel 'boots' used by many large city police departments, tire locks prevent the vehicle from being driven." Cost: $80 to $200.
  • Tire locks/tire deflators: "Attaches to the tire valve stem and causes the tire to go flat if the tire rotates before they are removed." Cost: less than $50.
  • Window etching: "Etching the vehicle identification number or other traceable number onto the vehicle's windows makes it difficult for thieves to resell the vehicle or its parts" and helps police recover the car. Cost: free (do it yourself) to $100.

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