Protect yourself from getting carjacked

In a carjacking situation, 74 percent of victims face an armed offender. (Image courtesy of MGN online)

I hate being a statistic. But last year in Chicago there were 765 vehicular hijackings, and I was a victim in one of them.

While there isn’t a lot of current national data available, a Crime Data Brief published by the US Department of Justice in 2004 estimated that an average of 38,000 carjacking victimizations occur every year.

That’s about 104 carjackings every day.

Some other alarming stats bandied about by this brief include:

  • 93 percent of carjackings occur in cities or suburbs
  • 93 percent of carjacking incidents were committed by males
  • 74 percent of victims face an armed offender
  • 63 percent of carjackings occur within 5 miles of a person’s home
  • 32 percent of victims are injured

While we don’t know the numbers for 2019, the 2004 data paint a vivid picture of a dangerous crime many communities report is on the rise.

The odds are in your favor you’ll never experience a carjacking, but nonetheless it pays to be savvy and aware of your surroundings. Because it can happen to you, just as it happened to me.

I’ve been wracking my brain for what I did wrong or what I could have done better. I was in a good neighborhood at noon on a busy day with plenty of potential witnesses surrounding me. And yet my car was stolen, and I walked away with a broken arm.

Immediately after the incident, I talked to an FBI agent, a self-defense instructor, a therapist, a private investigator and lots and lots of police officers.

What I learned is that I did a lot right, but there’s always more that could be done better.

It’s impossible to state definitively that if you do A, B and C then D will not happen.

A point driven home by Gavin De Becker in his book “The Gift of Fear.”

He writes: “Do not listen to the TV news checklist of what to do, or the magazine article’s checklist of what to do, or the story about what your friend did. Listen to the wisdom that comes from having heard it all by listening to yourself. Listen to your intuition.”

And he’s totally right. Every situation is different. But here are some items to consider that might help keep you out of harm’s way:

Avoid bad places and bad people

Every neighborhood or city has its good spots and its bad spots. As much as you can, avoid the bad ones. That might seem obvious, but you may not always be able to tell the good from the bad just by looking.

And that’s where your instincts kick in. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. Don’t stick around to see what’s making you uncomfortable.

The same goes for people.

Be alert

Federal Agent and former US Secret Service Agent James Sams said people who are committing a crime will often pre-select victims based on various behavioral criteria. If you project purpose and awareness, you are less likely to be a target.

Try to know where you are at all times and who’s around you. This means being present in the moment (aka put down your phone and pay attention), and it means making eye contact with people as you pass them.

Make it a game of sorts, and try to pick out some identifying traits on people as you pass: That guy has a nose ring, that woman has a tattoo on her wrist. And don’t be afraid to let people see you noticing them.

Know your environment

Though it’s not always possible to stay in your own neighborhood or stay within your own circle of comfort, you can still pay attention to your environment as a whole and recognize if something is “off.”

“Look for things that are out of place,” said Gil Jimenez, private investigator and Concealed Carry License Trainer, during a conversation in 2018.

For example, if it’s a 90-degree day and a couple of guys are walking down the street in long-sleeved sweatshirts, it’s worth noting this is unusual.

Lock your car doors immediately

As soon as you take a seat in your car, hit the lock button on your doors. Many vehicles have an automatic feature that will lock the doors once a vehicle is in “drive” or once it hits a specific speed.

But how often have you gotten in your vehicle and started checking emails on your phone or reading your mail – doing anything other than paying attention or driving away?

Sitting in your unlocked car makes you an easy target.

Don’t be afraid to be rude

As De Becker mentions in his book, sometimes a criminal will try to test your limits to see what they can get away with before they target you. Perhaps they’ll try to help you with your groceries or offer to carry a heavy package up your stairs. They may just follow you for a bit to see if you’re paying attention.

If you don’t want or need help, be firm in saying no thank you, and stick to your guns. Be rude if the wanna-be helper won’t take no for an answer. If you say no, then change your mind and accept help, the potential criminal knows he may be able to push you into a vulnerable position and take advantage of you.

“Be more concerned with your own safety than offending someone’s sensibilities,” Jimenez said.

Separate your keys from your phone from your purse/wallet

If you keep all your valuable items in separate locations on your person, it makes it easier to give up only part of what you have that might be valuable.

If they ask for your keys and you have your keys in your pocket, you can give them your keys without giving up your purse. If they want your wallet, you can give them your money without your phone or your keys.

Have a strategy and practice it

While no one wants to think he or she might be a target of crime, crime happens everywhere. So, if someone approaches you and demands your keys or wallet or phone, what are you going to do?

According Sams, you have to decide ahead of time what you will allow to be taken from you and how you’re going to react. Then you have to practice it.

“Your strategy needs to include proximity,” Sams said. “You need to have an honest view of yourself and recognize what your capacity is.”

Sams pointed out my 4-foot-11 self is probably not going to be able to take down a 6-foot-tall man without training. I am, however, a marathon runner.

“Maybe you should think about running next time,” he said.

Give yourself an out

When I was in driver’s ed, my instructor told me if you can’t see the bumper of the car in front of you while stopped at a red light, you’re too close. This point was echoed by a sergeant in the Chicago Police Department when he said you never want to get boxed in at a light.

If someone does approach your car while you’re stopped at a light, you want to be able to drive away, and if you’re too close to the car in front of you, you can’t do that.

Whatever you do, don’t be moved

This is one thing that Sams, Jimenez and all the police I talked to agree upon: Don’t allow anyone to relocate you – even if they have a gun.

“Never let that person move you 1 inch from where you are,” Jimenez said. “You stand a better chance by standing your ground.”

The reason: There is a higher chance of being killed if you are taken to an alternate location.

What if you’re just a witness?

Don’t put yourself in danger, but do try to be as helpful as you can.

The thing that floored me during my incident is there were at least five people who witnessed my assault and no one tried to help or stood up as a witness. Only one other person called 9-1-1.

So, what can you do if you witness a carjacking – or any crime? Call the police. Take a photo or video. Most important, however. Pay attention. Even if you’re hiding, try to take note of the height and weight of the person committing the crime. Remember clothing. Look for identifying marks or tattoos.

In effect: Be a good witness. The person who is being assaulted is likely too busy fighting for his or her life to notice the small stuff.

The Bottom Line

“People have to appreciate there is danger everywhere,” Jimenez said.

Violent crime happens. And the criminals are no longer hiding in shadows. They are bold and brassy, and they attack when you least expect it.

Like at noon on a busy street.