Like your home, your car or SUV is an extension of who and what you are. It is usually a place of safety, and you probably tend to think of it that way. However, the rise of carjackings and the risks car thieves must take demand heightened situational awareness of potential threats.
Prior to new key technology, a thief could hotwire a car when you were not around. It was safer for him or her as well as safer for you. Then automakers started putting coded chips in vehicles’ keys. Even if a vehicle were hotwired, it could not be driven. The computer would not allow the vehicle to move without the chip in place. It was almost enough to put a thief out of business. Almost.
Since a thief could not steal the car without the chipped key, the obvious solution was to first steal said key. But to do that, the thief needed to interact with the intended victim, and that meant turning a property crime into a violent crime. And anyone considering grand theft auto in the first place is probably only going to express so much moral concern about a victim’s health, safety and well-being.
Nevertheless, there are a few steps you can take to improve your personal safety and the security of your vehicle. While these won’t guarantee you’ll avoid an attempted carjacking, they will cut down on your attacker’s likelihood of success. The process begins with understanding victim selection and carjacking tactics.
Choosing Carjacking Victims: Easy Targets
Criminals do not want a fight. They want vulnerable victims. For the kinds of people apt to attempt this type of criminality, physically engaging strong people who might fight back is far too much work.
Distraction is also a common theme in victim selection. Carjackers look for people distracted by objects or activities. The best defense against someone coming to take your car is to drive away before he or she can take it. But to do that, you have to see the attack coming and be quick enough to react.
Betty Grayson and Morris I. Stein, two human behavior experts, conducted a study in 1981 to find out how criminals choose their victims.1 The idea was to ask a select group of criminals which individuals out of a large group of people they would choose to target. In order to get a random sample of people, the researchers made a video of about 60 New Yorkers walking down a busy sidewalk between 10 a.m. and noon. The experts then showed that video to prison inmates who had been convicted of assaultive crimes. They asked them to rate the pedestrians on the basis of who they believed would make good victims.
The researchers assumed that those victims would be easily identified by category — age, race, sex, clothing or other observable phenomena — but the results were surprising. At first glance, the researchers could not discern any common theme to the victims being selected, except for the fact that independent criminals viewing the video seemed to always pick the same ones. When asked why the criminals chose certain people, the inmates said that some people just looked like easy targets. On that basis, the researchers concluded that much of the victim-selection process is unconscious.
Digging deeper, the researchers explained that people who gave off an organized appearance and did not stick out from the crowd were the most likely to avoid being targeted as victims. People who stood out by virtue of their clothing, appearance or difference in gait were often selected as victims. Victim selection by criminals, then, revolves around the subtle signals a person gives off. People who are perceived as weak are targeted because criminals want compliance. In the carjacking arena, that means someone who is going to be surprised when the door gets flung open and a gun is stuck in his or her face.
How Criminals Choose Vehicles
As it turns out, knowing what kinds of vehicles to avoid owning is nearly as important as knowing what to do if you’re attacked. We often think of carjackers as individuals without transportation who simply need a car. This is rarely the case. In fact, most of the time, carjackers use their own vehicles and operate in teams. And when they head out on the hunt, they may well be looking for specific types and colors of vehicles based on what the local chop shops are taking in.2
Vehicle brands also matter to carjackers. The National Insurance Crime Bureau reported that, in 2021, the top five vehicles stolen were full-sized Chevrolet pickups, full-sized Ford pickups, Honda Civics, Honda Accords and Toyota Camrys.3 Yet unlike the casual car thief who counts on a vehicle being unattended, the carjacker gains access through the driver. For that reason, instead of trying to find an unoccupied vehicle, a carjacker may simply target someone driving the type of vehicle he or she is looking for on that particular day — provided the victim appears to be an easy mark.
Common Carjacking Schemes
One of the more common tactics used by carjackers working as a team is what is called “bump and run.” When the target vehicle is sitting in the first position at a traffic light, the car behind taps its back bumper. Annoyed, the driver of the target vehicle usually gets out to see if any damage was done, and the passenger from the vehicle behind, who was out the second the bump happened, thrusts a gun in the innocent driver’s face, jumps into the car and takes off with it.
Carjackers especially like locations that mix a vehicle, a victim and a distraction, such as a fast-food franchise. The driver handles his or her wallet to pay for the meal and passes the money or credit card to a cashier through the drive-through window. Then he or she pulls up to receive the food from a fast-food employee through a separate window. At either window, a criminal can slip into the passenger’s seat; point a gun at the driver; force him or her out of the car; and leave with his or her wallet, keys, credit cards and sometimes dinner (giving “dine and dash” a whole new meaning).
Gas stations are another favorite target for carjackers. A driver is out of the car, usually placing the gas nozzle back into the pump, when a carjacker appears and forces the driver out of the way, taking the now-full vehicle away at high speed.
Self-service car washes (meaning those without any on-site humans) are also a good bet for carjackers. A person washing his or her late-model car is distracted by the task at hand and rarely pays attention to what is going on nearby. A carjacker can rush the victim, take his or her keys and drive away.
An ATM is another source of distraction for a driver and also offers the bonus of fresh (and usually untraceable) cash to a successful carjacker. While daylight crimes of this variety are unlikely to occur because banking personnel are close by and can report lurkers, at night the security cameras and lighting may not provide enough of a buffer to afford a driver adequate warning of any approaching threats. It is never a good idea to visit a cash machine after dark, but if you must, do so with at least one other person watching your back.
Shoppers who are carrying packages are also easy targets. Living in Alabama, I find that people are often friendly and will try to be helpful. Not long ago, I saw a woman struggling to get a number of large boxes into her SUV. I stopped and held her boxes, and she took them from me one at a time and loaded them into her vehicle. It occurred to me later that had I been a carjacker, she never would have seen me coming.
Parking Safety Reminders
When you’re parking a car, one of the more important safety measures you can take is to look for a spot directly under a streetlamp, even if it is merely early afternoon. If you have to come out of wherever you’re headed after dark, you will be able to see not only your car but also other cars and other people around it. Any time there are very few cars in a parking lot and a car is parked directly next to yours, there is reason to be cautious, especially if you’re driving a newer-model car. It may be good to call 911 and report a suspicious vehicle. Don’t risk being carjacked; let the police handle it.
How you enter a parked car is equally important. If your vehicle requires you to put a key into a lock, then have the key out, turned in the correct position and ready to insert. Unlock the door, enter, relock the door, start the car and drive away immediately. Do not get to your car, and only then begin digging into your pockets for the key. To someone watching, you’re distracted and an easy victim. If your car operates on a key fob, keep the fob in your pocket as you unlock the door. Get in, lock the doors, start the car and leave.
Just as a police officer will tell a suspect to “show me your hands,” a criminal plays games along the same theme. He or she may ask for directions — hoping you’ll point and show your hands — or ask you what time it is (which usually requires you to use your dominant hand to uncover your watch on your non-dominant wrist).4 If a criminal is unsure whether you look like a victim, he or she may do these things to avoid being shot.
But another purpose of such tactics is distraction. Someone may be holding your attention while a partner behind takes your keys and your car. For this reason, any time you see one individual approach or ask questions, you should do a 360-degree visual sweep to determine if that individual has a partner or cohort and take defensive action if the partner is approaching.
Since most of these types of encounters occur while a vehicle is stopped, it is important to always keep your doors locked. Check to see if your vehicle automatically releases the door locks when you put it in park. This could prove to be quite dangerous when you’re in a drive-through or another location where a criminal could approach. If that feature is menu-driven, then it can be turned off — and it should be. If not, you should be careful never to sit alone in your unlocked car. It’s like having a flashing neon sign attached to your vehicle that reads, “Victimize me.”
Lane Selection and Traffic Awareness
Lane selection while driving can also play a role in preventing you from becoming a victim. You should never follow so closely behind someone at a stoplight that you cannot see where the tires of the vehicle in front of you meet the pavement. If you do, you’ll be boxed in if the car in front of or behind you contains a carjacker. If you are boxed in between a carjacker’s car in front of you and someone behind you, you won’t have room to maneuver out of the situation.
In a situation involving more than two lanes, it is wise to pick a lane in the middle, as this gives you options to your right and left if someone attempts to attack you. If there are only two lanes, then the best lane is the far-right lane because, if necessary, you can sometimes use the shoulder or jump the curb to get away.
While the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) no longer asks participants when an attack occurred, a report from 2004 found that 68 percent of carjackings happened at night.5 And a more recent BJS report from 2022 discovered that more than 60 percent of carjackings occurred away from a person’s home.6
From these statistics, we can discern that going to an unfamiliar place when it’s dark is especially risky, particularly if you drive a model of vehicle that is frequently stolen. Rural carjackings are rare, while attempts in densely populated urban areas are far more common. Unfortunately, most of us do not have the luxury of driving only during daylight hours, nor do we have the option of only going to familiar places. And this is why you need to remain vigilant.
Carjacking Hot Spots
Most people adapt to driving in a city fairly quickly. Urban population centers often feature dense traffic, and sometimes that traffic moves at a snail’s pace. A carjacker will often hang out at a choke point, waiting for the perfect opportunity to take down a victim. It boils down to having good situational awareness and never taking what’s in front of you at face value.
A busy intersection with pedestrian crossings is a hot spot. A carjacker can easily walk across the road in the crosswalk until he or she gets near your car, then try to force his or her way in. Since we frequently see pedestrians walking in crosswalks, we often forget that “pedestrian” is another word used to describe a potential carjacker.
Finally, while many cars use software connections such as Apple CarPlay or a similar phone-to-car mating system, it is a good idea to keep both your wallet and your cellphone in your pocket in the event you are carjacked. Without your wallet, you have no way to identify yourself. Without your phone, you have no way to call the police.
According to the BJS, offenders use a weapon in 59 percent of nonfatal carjackings, and about one in four victims (26 percent) is injured. Bearing that in mind, sometimes compliance is the best strategy. Putting up your hands, walking away and letting the bandit take your car is a far better outcome for you than visiting your local emergency room for treatment of high-velocity lead poisoning and blood loss.
If your vehicle has OnStar, it can be tracked and recovered relatively quickly. If you have LoJack-type protection on your vehicle, you also have a method to recover it. Plus, if your car is running when the attack occurs and you have the keys in your pocket, you can scream, “Take the car, the keys are inside,” and run quickly away, knowing that the felon won’t be able to drive very far without the keys. (EDITOR’S NOTE: If you employ this tactic, remain prepared to defend yourself.)
There are, of course, also circumstances under which compliance is a bad strategy. If an attacker attempts to compel you to accompany him or her, complying rarely works out well. In that situation, you may have to resist with proper force, up to and including deadly. And if you are carrying concealed and someone attempts a carjacking, it may not be as simple as drawing your sidearm and shooting.
First, a vehicle is an enclosed space, and the sound of a gunshot will be greatly magnified inside. Second, unless you are carrying in a shoulder holster or some other rapidly accessible and centrally located manner, you’ll have to turn or negotiate a seat belt in order to draw, which may telegraph your intent to shoot. If the felon has a pistol, this could be fatal, and tactical patience or a ruse like the one mentioned above might be a better choice.
If you drive in an urban area where carjackings are frequent occurrences, then it is a good idea to get advanced training on defending from inside a vehicle. Until you have taken such training, manipulated your firearm while you’re seated and belted, and successfully deployed your weapon against targets, you are unlikely to be certain you can succeed in defending yourself from behind the wheel.
Keep in mind, however, that the rules of gun safety are not suspended just because you’re being victimized. A self-defense shooting in an intersection can go wrong in countless ways. Running away is usually the safest course of action. But if you are left with no choice but to engage your attacker, then, as a defender, you must be mindful of your backstop. Property damage is easily repaired, but injury to another, even from a well-intentioned shot, could create significant criminal or civil liability.
Heed the Danger Signs
The best manner in which to protect yourself from a carjacking is to stay vigilant and always afford yourself an escape route. Look for people in your area who are looking at you. Make eye contact. People looking for easy targets often look elsewhere when a potential victim spots them.
(1) Betty Grayson and Morris I. Stein, “Attracting Assault: Victims’ Nonverbal Cues,” Journal of Communication 31, no. 1 (March 1981): 68-75.
(2) Chop shops are specialized garages operating below law enforcement radar, often in residential garages, where cars are disassembled and sold for parts. Workers can strip a car into salable parts in as little as one or two hours, often with very little training and a few tools. The price of the vehicle’s replacement parts, sold individually, is usually much higher than the resale value of the car.
(3) Emmet White, “These Were the Most Frequently Stolen Vehicles of 2021,” Car and Driver, Aug. 8, 2022, CarAndDriver.com/news/a40837230/most-stolen-vehicles.
(4) Criminal: “Hey, man, what time is it?” Non-victim: “Time for you to buy a watch.”
(5) Patsy Klaus, Carjacking, 1993-2002, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, July 1, 2004, 2, BJS.ojp.gov/library/publications/carjacking-1993-2002.
(6) Erika Harrell, Carjacking Victimization, 1995-2021, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Oct. 4, 2022, 2, BJS.ojp.gov/carjacking-victimization-1995-2021.
(7) Harrell, Carjacking Victimization, 1995-2021, 1.