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Mass. car theft scourge fading

In 1975, when Chevelles and Cutlasses ruled the road, Massachusetts held the dubious distinction of being the country’s car theft capital, with an astounding 1 of every 35 registered motor vehicles reported stolen.

Today, motorists can worry far less about having their cars disappear. Auto thefts in Massachusetts have plunged 88 percent in the past four decades, a technology-aided decline that shows little sign of abating.

In Boston, there were just 1,575 reports of stolen vehicles last year, compared with 28,000 in 1975, according to government figures.

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The state now ranks near the middle of the pack nationally, a major cultural shift that has not only curbed auto insurance rates, but spared residents untold expense and aggravation, specialists say.

Antitheft features, from transponder keys and immobilizing devices to vehicle tracking systems, have made cars far more difficult to steal. With new vehicles increasingly outfitted with such protection, the days of unlocking a car door with a coat hanger, then hot-wiring it for a quick getaway, are all but over.

The drastic drop mirrors a national trend and reflects declining crime rates overall. Still, the speed and magnitude of the decline have stunned law enforcement officials and industry observers alike. Even a decade ago, today’s levels would have been hard to imagine, they say.

“It’s beyond any rational expectations,” said Kim Hazelbaker, senior vice president of the Highway Loss Data Institute, a nonprofit group supported by auto insurers. “It’s been such an incredible story.”

In Massachusetts, car thefts have dropped every year since 2001, usually by an appreciable amount. The state ranked 21st nationally in 2011.

That’s a far cry from 1975, when auto thefts in Boston were at their peak. Even the mayor at the time, Kevin White, was not immune, as thieves stole his car from the streets of Beacon Hill no fewer than eight times in four years.

“As we say in Boston, we’re number one,” a Boston police sergeant said at a press conference at that time. “And we hope your car is there when you leave.”

Today, the proliferation of antitheft technology in new models has “driven out the casual thief” responsible for most stolen cars, Hazelbaker said.

“This is a professional operation now,” he said. “It’s a very targeted problem.”

Despite the overall decline, vehicles that are stolen are less likely to be found. Many are shipped overseas or are driven to Mexico, specialists say. Nationally, recovery rates have fallen to 52 percent, the lowest in decades.

Thefts across the country declined by nearly one-third between 2007 and 2010. In San Francisco and Philadelphia, among other cities, rates have dropped 40 percent in recent years.

Of the 10 vehicles most frequently stolen, all were made before 2007, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, a nonprofit that works with insurance companies and law enforcement agencies.

Nationally, the 1994 Honda Accord topped the list, followed by the 1998 Honda Civic. Both are popular models that often lack the latest antitheft protection and therefore can be broken into with relative ease and remain targets for parts that thieves can resell.

The new antitheft devices generally prevent cars from being started without the proper key and are increasingly becoming standard. As older cars are gradually phased out, thefts could become even more difficult, specialists say.

“Vehicle theft might just be a manageable irritant before too long,” said Frank Scafidi of the National Insurance Crime Bureau.

In light of the decline, many police departments nationwide have disbanded specialized auto theft units to focus on other crimes.

In Massachusetts, the State Police dissolved the auto theft strike force in January, citing budget pressures. Formed in the early 1980s, the squad made 328 arrests in 2011 and recovered vehicles valued at more than $9.6 million.

Beyond the new technology, officials say, enforcement has also played a role in the decline.

In Boston, officers keep a close eye on parking lots and other high-risk areas, put out attractive “bait cars” to trap would-be thieves, and conduct surprise inspections of body shops where stolen vehicles may be stripped for parts.

“They know who we are,” said Sergeant Detective Ken Lamb, head of the department’s auto theft unit. “They’ve become a lot more cautious.”

Lamb, a member of the state’s theft strike force at its founding, said stricter penalties for thefts have also been a deterrent.

Edward Walsh, the police chief in Taunton, credited antitheft technology for the decline in thefts, saying, “It has become nearly impossible for an amateur to simply break in and start a car.”

Between 2007 and 2011, thefts in Taunton fell from 179 to 30. Most thefts involve older cars or cases where the driver left the keys in the ignition, Walsh said.

In Woburn, Chief Robert Ferullo Jr. said analysis of where thefts occur and an aggressive response to car break-ins in shopping areas contributed to a nearly 70 percent decline. In Randolph, Chief William Pace cited the hiring of 10 more officers as a factor in thefts dropping from 76 to 25 between 2007 and 2011.

Running counter to the trend, thefts have surged in Lawrence, rising from 408 to just over 1,000 during that same period.

Police Chief John Romero blamed a fiscal crisis that cost the force 40 of its 150 officers.

“We had at least five people working on auto theft and insurance fraud” who were put back in uniform because of the layoffs, he said.

The department has since added more officers, and thefts dropped sharply last year, to 686.

Many of the thefts are either tied to gangs who steal large numbers of vehicles or are not really thefts at all, Romero said. Instead, some drivers simply ditch their cars because the payments are too high.

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