New car alarms can call home and track thieves

InfoWorld |  Security

WITH THE ROLLOUT next month of anti-theft devices that will phone home as well as use global positioning technology to follow a stolen car, the eternal struggle between car thieves and the police will take on a new dimension.

After-market car alarm systems from manufacturers, including Clarion, Omega, and Audiovox, will go on sale in February and include anti-theft alert systems that can be set up to call any phone number, send a page, or send an alert to any handheld device when the alarm goes off.

Included in the system, designed by San Francisco-based Televoke, will be a global positioning chip that can transmit the position of the vehicle on a map to the owner's desktop PC or use text-to-speech technology to give the owner position updates by phone.

Systems are expected to start at about $595, with the first year's service included. Re-subscribers to the service can expect to pay less than $10 per month, according to Televoke founder and CEO Rick Bentley.

Televoke will run the service at hosting centers around the country.

But although the anti-theft devices may stop amateur car thieves who steal cars for a joyride, professionals on the right side of the law doubt if it will stop the pros on the wrong side.

"It depends on the triggering device, but when all else fails the smart thieves are using tow trucks," said John Lawlor, a former lieutenant at the Boston Police Department and now the technical advisor for the National Public Radio show Car Talk.

Lawlor, who was also the advisor to screenwriter Scott Rosenberg for the movie Gone in 60 Seconds, a film about the car theft business, said there is big money in parts.

"The sum of the parts is greater than the whole," Lawlor said.

Estimates vary, but some experts say a $30,000 car can be worth as much as $80,000 in parts. "You don't even have to steal the car; there's a really big market in air bag modules," Lawlor said.

As far as overcoming an electronic GPS (Global Positioning System), Lawlor said thieves will most likely disable the antenna with tin foil.

Lawlor said the new system may cut down on kids taking cars for joyrides, but car theft today is much more geared to big dollars. "It used to be bad in Massachusetts, with kids taking cars for joyrides, but everyone is a professional now," he said.

Another long-time car consultant, Marty Schorr, president of PMPR, a Sarasota, Fl.-based consultancy, agreed.

"In the old days, guys [in the neighborhood] used to steal cars and bring them out to a central place and they would be sold," Schorr said. "Now it's a network of businesses with some sold for parts and others shipped oversees."

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