Criminology Motor Vehicle Theft
Heith Copes
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 March 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0102


Motor vehicle theft involves the unlawful taking or attempted taking of a motor vehicle. Motor vehicle theft is a form of larceny, but because of its frequency and seriousness the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Report (UCR) treats it as a separate category. Motor vehicle thefts represent a large proportion of all property crimes in the United States. For example, motor vehicle thefts account for approximately 10 percent of all property crimes reported in the UCR. Despite the prevalence and high cost of the crime, academics in the United States have devoted relatively little attention to it compared to other forms of street crime. In fact, much of the literature presented here comes from research conducted in Canada, Australia, and Great Britain. This bibliography reviews some of the general treatments, data sources, research, theories, and prevention efforts centered on motor vehicle theft.

General Overviews

Despite the prevalence of motor vehicle theft, there has been relatively little academic research devoted to the topic. Research in this area has produced only a few systematic manuscripts of sizable length. One of the earliest lengthy treatments of motor vehicle theft is Clarke and Harris 1992, which provides a thorough review of the literature on auto theft. Cherbonneau and Wright 2009 provides a comprehensive review of what is known about the topic. Maxfield and Clarke 2004 focuses on placing the crime in the context of rational choice and situational crime prevention. Walsh 2009 focuses on how ecological change affects motor vehicle theft. While each of these works presents good overviews of the available research on motor vehicle theft, there are several issues that are under-researched. Understudied areas include patterns and prevalence of auto theft as insurance fraud, thieves’ adaptations to vehicle tracking devices (e.g., OnStar), and effective crime prevention strategies to prevent different types of auto theft (e.g., joyriding vs. profit) to name a few.

  • Cherbonneau, Michael, and Richard Wright. 2009. Auto theft. In The Oxford handbook of crime and public policy. Edited by Michael Tonry, 191–222. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    An excellent and thorough overview of what is known about auto theft. Includes discussions of rates, trends, victim and offender characteristics, crime prevention, and target selection. Includes trends from the United States and abroad.

  • Clarke, Ronald V., and Patricia M. Harris. 1992. Auto theft and its prevention. In Crime and justice: A review of research. Vol. 16. Edited by Michael Tonry, 1–54. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    The first comprehensive review of the literature pertaining specifically to motor vehicle theft. Ideal for those who are beginning research on the topic.

  • Maxfield, Michael G., and Ronald V. Clarke, eds. 2004. Understanding and preventing car theft. Papers presented at a conference held at the Police Institute, Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice, October 2003. Crime Prevention Studies 17. Monsey, NY: Criminal Justice Press.

    Edited collection that provides excellent research that relates to car theft, rational choice, and situational crime prevention. Includes research from several countries.

  • Walsh, Jeffrey. 2009. Motor vehicle theft in middle America, 1990–2001: Community social structure and ecological change over a decade. Frankfurt: VDM Verlag.

    Constitutes the first book-length research devoted to auto theft. It uses longitudinal statistics to examine the relationship between motor vehicle theft rates and ecological change over a decade.

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