How to Survive a Carjacking

Moms, dads, singles, teens — we all must know how these thieves operate for our protection and safety

Newer vehicles have become much harder to steal than their predecessors. No longer can you simply stick a slide hammer in the key cylinder, pop out the lock, and drive away using a screwdriver to start the car.

That used to work — but not anymore. With newer vehicles equipped with alarms, unique keys, passcodes, combinations on doors, and any of the many anti-theft devices now standard in modern vehicles, the auto thief must find a new way to beat all those devices.

Watch for people handing out flyers in parking lots.

‘What the Thief Uses Is You’
That is a scary thought, but it is very true. If you are in the car — driving, parked, or otherwise — the thief has already defeated all of those pesky devices. All the thief has to do is make you give up the keys (or in the worst-case scenario, take you along for the ride). Carjacking is the way many new cars are stolen. This is where the thief confronts the driver and forcibly, through threats or actual violence, takes the car from the victim.

There are many ways this happens, but as with almost anything else, there are things you can do to lessen your chances of becoming a victim of this very frightening violent crime.

History of Carjacking
In the ’90s, carjacking really came to the forefront. In Newark, New Jersey, and Detroit, Michigan, carjackings became rampant. In 2008, Detroit had more than three carjackings every day. This is over 1,200 violent thefts that sometimes resulted in death. The first carjackings saw a rash of vehicles stolen and later sold to chop shops for parts. This was a business.

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Around 2010, there was a shift in the carjacking mentality. Cars were being stolen by younger offenders, driven around for a few hours, and then abandoned. These were joyriders, but they were no less dangerous to the victim. During that time, another class of carjacker became more prevalent — those looking to use the car in another crime. Robbery, drive-by shootings, or any other crime where the perpetrator needs a vehicle may necessitate carjacking to quickly acquire the transport they require.

The last class of offender is the most dangerous. This is the carjacker who wants the driver. The car is just the means to an end. Luckily, these are not the norm, but it does happen. If this is the case, the robbery is only the beginning of a crime that will end in violence and possibly homicide.

‘They Can Occur Anywhere’
Carjackings can occur anywhere, and the U.S. is not the only country with the issue. Carjacking has become a worldwide problem. The prevalence of carjacking in other nations, many times the precursor to kidnapping, has become so commonplace that the U.S. State Department Bureau of Diplomatic Security released a bulletin on the issue way back in 2002.

According to the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) report released in July 2004, which studied the issue of carjacking in the U.S.:

  • Carjacking victimization rates were highest in urban areas, followed by suburban and rural areas.
  • Ninety-three percent of carjackings occurred in cities or suburbs.
  • A weapon was used in 74 percent of carjacking victimizations.
  • Firearms were used in 45 percent of carjackings, knives in 11 percent and other weapons in 18 percent.
  • Forty-four percent of carjackings take place in an open area, such as along the street, and 24 percent occur in garages or parking lots or near commercial areas, such as malls, gas stations, restaurants, office buildings, etc.
  • Carjackings often happen when a driver is stopped at a light or intersection, with carjackers lying in wait in another nearby vehicle.

Remember, the above data was from 13 years ago, the last time such a survey was done. The prevalence of gang-related carjackings plus the natural increase in weapons carried by offenders will undoubtedly increase the incidence of weapons being involved in carjackings.

Precautions You Should Take
Watch for people handing out flyers in parking lots. This could easily be a ruse. Be careful of poorly lit parking lots. Be especially mindful as you approach your home. Do you have a gate or garage door that has to open? These are places you have to stop and wait. Activate your gate or garage door first, that way you drive straight in and close it behind you.

In traffic jams, watch for someone coming up to the car. One tactic is the bump and stop. This is where a car hits you from behind. As you get out to see the damage, the carjacker — most likely the passenger in the car that just hit you — takes your car. If you are bumped like this, just keep driving until you get to a well-lit or very populated area. Call the police and wait for them to arrive.

Related: A Message to Those Who Would Kill Police K9s

Never, ever leave your car running and walk away from it. Some years ago in Houston, Texas, a friend of ours stopped at a convenience store to get something. She was with a friend, and they had their two kindergarten-age children with them.

The driver ran into the store and left the car running. Her friend stepped out of the car for just a moment and a carjacker jumped in, took the car, and sped off with the two screaming children in the back seat. The car was abandoned a few blocks later. When it was all over, the two children were physically unharmed but traumatized, which lasted for years.

How many of you have done this? It’s cold. You are cold, and the car is cold. You start the car and go back in the house, grab another cup of coffee while the car warms up. You may find yourself walking to work when your car is no longer waiting for you. This happens more often than you think.

What do you do if the attacker has entered the passenger side and you are still in the car?

‘Learn Not to Become a Victim’
Be aware of your surroundings and preplan. In a recent article on home defense, I stressed the importance of preplanning. The same principle applies here. Many of the following tips are common sense until you realize you forgot them as your car drives away without you.

Always drive with your windows up and your doors locked. Avoid high crime areas. Park in well-lit areas and not close to areas where your attacker may hide. Glance in the back seat and around the area before you enter. Approach your vehicle with your keys in hand. You do not want to stand at the door fumbling through your pockets or purse looking for the keys.

Doing that gives your attacker time to approach a distracted and occupied victim (you). Enter and lock your car quickly. If you are exiting a shop or mall and feel something is wrong, get security. That is their job. When driving, if you have to stop for traffic, leave at least a car length in front of you. You should be able to see the rear tires of the car in front. If you have to take evasive action or get out of the area quickly, you have left yourself room to maneuver. When driving, check to see if you are being followed.

During the Carjacking
Even if you have preplanned, taken every precaution, have everything worked out in your head, and done everything right — it can still happen. When it does, you will have to figure out your best option.

Compliance is the safest course of action in many cases. Always give the attacker what he wants — the car, your belongings, etc. You can replace stuff. If you are not in the car yet and the carjacker demands the keys, throw them. Make the criminal recover the keys and take off running and yelling for help.

If you have your child in the car, tell the attacker right away. Most want nothing to do with the added complication of a child.

If you are already in your car when the attack comes, you must immediately check your options. You may be able to drive away. Remember that extra space you left in front of you at the stop? Well, there is a reason. This gives you room to drive. Drive on the sidewalk, drive in a yard — just drive and do it immediately. If you cannot drive away and the attacker is going to take the car, again, get away if at all possible. Throw them the keys and exit running.

Related: Flight Attendant Hailed for Rescue of Human Trafficking Victim

What do you do if the attacker has entered the passenger side and you are still in the car? If you can, exit the vehicle quickly. If you are forced to drive, then you are in a bad position, but you are not defenseless.

Now, I must give a background caveat here. I am a tactical type of guy. I am most likely going to look for an opportunity to fight back. Statistics actually show you are no more likely to be harmed if you do. If I am forced to drive, I am going to find a way to end this. A crash works. Most carjackers are not going to wear seat belts and certainly will not be expecting you to take off and run directly into the car in front of you or a tree (preferably on their side).

Do not under any circumstances allow yourself to be forced into the trunk. Avoid this at all costs. This situation will not turn out well. Do not get in. Run, fight, scream, and do anything not to be forced into the trunk.

If you happen to be armed, that opens up an entire host of other possibilities. The key is that you have to be ready. You must decide if you can give up your property, escape, call the police, and live another day — or if you have been put into a “fight for your life” situation. If that is the case, you do any and everything you have to. Remember (and this is important): Decide not to become a victim.

Jon Harris is a former Army NCO, civilian law enforcement officer, and defense contractor with over 30 years in the law enforcement community. He is an OpsLens contributor and holds a B.S. in government and politics and an M.S. in criminal justice. This article is from OpsLens and is used by permission. 

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