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In retrospect, something should have tweaked when I saw both men get into the light blue minivan from the passenger side.

It was a sunny winter's morning on New Year's Eve and I'd just parked in a large outdoor lot, kitty corner opposite them. It seemed odd at the time, but I was heading to the gym (never too late to keep a 2012 resolution) and didn't pay too much attention.

Besides, these gentlemen were smiling. There was not a hint of stress or concern on their faces. In fact, those smiles were their single most remarkable feature. They were dressed in bulky winter coats and dark toques, like labourers on their way to a job or hunters on their way to a weekend shoot. Ten minutes after seeing them slip into what appeared to be their vehicle, the word spread through the gym. A light blue minivan had been stolen. Then it all made sense.

The grinning men were a couple of car thieves who'd been casing the parking lot looking for an opportunity: a door left open or an older model that would be easier to break into. They'd found one (hence the smiles), cracked the passenger door and made their escape.

As I watched the vehicle's owner rush past on her way to talk to the police, someone told me, "It happens sometimes. They steal a car and drive it until it's almost out of gas. Then they just dump it in a lot and try to find another."

It was not my first encounter with auto theft. Most recently. I forgot to lock up the old minivan overnight. The next morning, I found the glove compartment had been rifled through. The car had been left unstolen. The thieves may as well have left a note saying, "You're old and boring."

Over the years, I've compiled list of strategies that can be used by everyday citizens to protect their vehicles.

Ways to Stop Car Theft

1) Travel everywhere by plane.

2) Don't leave your car running with the door open and the thief's favourite song playing. Car thief faves include Keep the Car Running by Arcade Fire and Hall and Oates's Method of Modern Love .

3) Avoid leaving gold bars, stacks of cash or Birks gift bags in the front seat.

4) Don't leave keys in the ignition when you step out to get coffee.

5) Place a sign visible on dashboard: "You've already stolen my gold bars, stacks of cash and Birks gift bags, stupid."

6) When you park your car in a lot, remove at least one wheel.

7) Whenever you park, leave a porcupine on the driver's seat.

8) Never leave your car.

9) Pre-steal your own car.

10) Park your car in a garage, but park a hologram of your car on the street as a decoy.

While those are perennial measures, the fact is that incidence of car theft ebbs and flows. It's a fickle thing that's subject to the whims of fashion and zeitgeist.

For instance, in the '80s, car stereos were the item of choice for auto pilferers. In 1985, according to a report in The Globe and Mail, Toronto police busted a ring of 68 teenagers aged 15-21 who snatched $3.2-million in luxury car stereos and spent the proceeds on "alcohol, drugs and parties." They used an innovative "Star Wars" technique (gleaned from an unsuspecting science teacher) that allowed them to smash silently through windows and nab a stereo in less than a minute. If I ever option the story and turn it into a Lifetime Movie-of-the-Week, it will be entitled A Very Eighties Crime Spree.

By the 1990s, stereos were passé – whole cars were the item of choice. Communism's collapse opened up new markets and thieves sent millions of vehicles to countries such as Vietnam, Russia and Poland. Experts estimated that in North America during the 1990s one car was stolen every 20 seconds. It cost billions and people were killed (by people driving stolen vehicles). Police forces and governments got serious. The single most important move was the introduction of a Transport Canada law that made immobilizers mandatory in vehicles after Sept. 1, 2007.

The incidence of vehicle theft has fallen each year since then, but the practice hasn't disappeared. According to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, car theft costs almost $1-billion a year – $542-million in insurance costs and $250-million in "police, health system and court costs." In 2012, the most stolen car in Canada was the 2000 Honda Civic SiR two-door followed in close second by the 1999 Honda Civic SiR two-door.

Today's car thieves can be divided into two categories. Most common are the smash-and-drive crooks seeking older makes that are easier to hot-wire. They ransack and then abandon them in a parking lot or drop the hot wheels at a chop shop. Some use them to commit other crimes. Then there is the finesse crowd who target luxury vehicles. These guys will break into a house to get the car keys or they'll use high-tech methods to circumvent high-tech security systems. Both groups are tough to stop.

It's a pickle. As much as we'd all like to believe there is a sure-fire way to deter automobile theft, there really is only one way to guarantee that your ride is never stolen – don't own a car.

Follow Andrew Clark on Twitter: @aclarkcomedy

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