Car thefts are going the way of the pay phone.

The scourge of thieves jamming a screwdriver into a car’s ignition and joy-riding with friends has nearly become a thing of the past, part of a dramatic regional and national decline in auto theft that is the result of advances in anti-theft technology and aggressive police work.

Newer cars, equipped with high-tech keys and immobilizer systems, are impossible to hot-wire. Police deploy license plate scanners and bait cars, and services such as OnStar give investigators an edge in hunting down stolen cars and the crooks who swipe them. Improved anti-terror laws have made it harder to falsify documents and launder cars, making it less likely a hot car will hit the secondary market disguised as a legitimate one. And police have put resources into dismantling theft rings and chop shops.

That combination of auto industry advances and old-fashioned law enforcement deterrence has sent car theft plummeting across the United States by more than 40 percent since 2003, the last year that saw an increase. The decline far outpaces drops in every other crime category.

Vehicle theft was so rampant in Prince George’s County in 2004 that, on average, there was a car stolen almost every 30 minutes. By last year, the crime had dropped by about 60  percent. In the District and across Maryland, the number of stolen cars has fallen about 50 percent in the past seven years. Virginia car theft, in line with national averages, has declined 42 percent. Fairfax County’s thefts have dropped at the same rate, to 837 last year, less than one-tenth of one percent of the 956,528 registered vehicles there.

According to FBI statistics, crime in most categories has dropped nationwide since 2003 but not nearly as fast as auto theft. Overall violent crime fell 10 percent, homicide dropped 12 percent, and burglary remained essentially the same. To law enforcement experts, that auto theft is dropping nearly four times as fast as other crime makes sense because it always seemed like a puzzle that police and the industry could crack.

“We thought that car theft would be the one kind of crime that lends itself to solving,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum. “Finally, technology has caught up to the intuitive vision street cops had a decade ago.”

Quelling the ‘epidemic’

Prince George’s police called car theft in the county an “epidemic” in 2005, and for good reason. The previous year, the county reported 16,332 stolen autos. Rushern L. Baker III (D), who is now the county executive, was a victim several years ago when someone snatched his burgundy Chevrolet Suburban sport-utility vehicle from his driveway in Cheverly.

“Auto theft didn’t creep up on us, it exploded. We became defined by it. Everyone was talking about it,” said Prince George’s Deputy Police Chief Kevin Davis, head of the patrol bureau. “It can and does happen to anyone, regardless of socioeconomic status. We did drastic things to get a hold of it.”

Those measures have worked. By 2010, the number of auto thefts had come down to 6,052, and it has continued to decrease this year. That’s a reduction of 10,000 missing cars. More than one theft per hour per day thwarted, over an entire year.

To attack the problem, Prince George’s police put more detectives on cases and relied on tactics such as bait cars — police-owned vehicles rigged with surveillance cameras and automatic-lock doors. Police leave them in high-crime areas with the keys inside and wait for a thief to get in and make his move.

County police also deployed license plate readers, devices that look for stolen cars by automatically scanning every tag that passes. About the same time, police began handing out $55 tickets to motorists who left their cars running when they weren’t in them — something people will do while warming up a vehicle in a driveway or running into a convenience store for coffee.

“Education was a big piece of this,” Davis said.

The department’s auto theft unit started making case after case, taking down car theft rings and low-level street thieves.

Detectives work out of a centralized special unit and comb the streets nightly, turning up stolen cars. They figure out where the thieves live and hit nearby streets.

“That’s all we do, auto theft through the whole county,” Detective Luis Aponte said as he eased his car through Capitol Heights on a recent sweltering evening looking for stolen cars. He called in the tags of any vehicle that looked suspicious. “We find the hot spots. We’re constantly at it.”

Aponte and other investigators in his unit were on their way to get a big fish that night. He rolled up to a home in Capitol Heights, looking for a tow truck driver who police believe had helped himself to at least 19 cars while he was off duty.

As Jermel Watson walked out of his home, Aponte and the other detectives cuffed him. The man did not protest: “You won’t have no problem from me,” said Watson, 41, bowing his head and putting his hands behind his back. He was charged with several counts, including theft and malicious destruction of property.

Late last year, police said, Watson sneaked onto driveways and into parking lots under the cover of night, hooked up cars to his truck and hauled them away. He’d smash up the cars with a sledgehammer and turn them over to a scrap metal shop, at $300 a pop, to be crushed for recycling, police said. His attorney could not be reached to comment.

“He said he did it because he needed Christmas money,” said Aponte, who interviewed Watson later that night about theft cases that stretched back to October. “He was on a spree.”

Theft-resistant vehicles

The list of the most-stolen vehicles across the country is filled with late-1990s Toyota and Honda sedans along with older American-made minivans and pickups. That’s in part because there are so many of those vehicles on the road. But it is rare for a car built after 2000 to show up on the list.

All it takes to get into some of those older cars is to pry open a window, and all it takes to start them, in some cases, is a screwdriver or a pair of scissors and some basic car knowledge.

In the District, where auto thefts had dropped by almost 50 percent in recent years – to 4,864 last year — Chief Cathy L. Lanier said life has become more difficult for car thieves.

Most of them were juveniles who would steal cars with friends to go joy-riding. The number of juveniles arrested in stolen cars has dropped by 63 percent since 2007.

“Technology has made it really hard for them,” Lanier said. “You can’t hot-wire the newer cars. . . . It’s now harder to steal a car and easier for us to catch you when you do.”

The numbers fell so much that last year Lanier removed D.C. police detectives from the Washington Area Vehicle Enforcement team, a squad of investigators from local jurisdictions who worked auto- theft cases together.

“I’m precise about where I put my people,” Lanier said. “Auto theft was not the biggest problem in the city. I’d rather have those detectives pursuing something else.”

The vehicles that are stolen now are often used as getaway cars in robberies or burglaries and then dumped several blocks from where they were taken.

“There are certain cars they like,” the police chief said. “If they’re going to do armed robberies, usually it’s a minivan. They’re easy to steal.”

Sonja Sweek doesn’t know whether her silver 2000 Dodge Grand Caravan minivan was used for joy riding or as a getaway car. It was stolen July 2 from the Home Depot parking lot on Rhode Island Avenue NE, where she was picking up mulch.

“I went round and round that parking lot and thought, ‘Am I crazy or what?’ ” said Sweek, who lives on Capitol Hill. “Then I realized it was gone.”

Police found it a week and a half later in a residential area of Capitol Heights. The steering wheel column and driver’s seat were trashed, cigarette butts were ground into the carpet, and a Global Positioning System device, hand tools and a roll of quarters were missing.

Investigators say it is common for thieves to race back and forth across the city-county line swiping cars and ditching them.

“I know these are prime target cars,” Sweek said of minivans like hers. “They’re easy to get started. They’re great for hauling your friends around when you go joy-riding. It’s easy to put your stuff in there when you go stealing.”

Success in Northern Virginia

Second Lt. Christian Quinn of Fairfax police’s major crimes division said the downward trend in auto theft has come at a time when one might expect it to be going in the opposite direction.

“It defies conventional wisdom, because we’re in a recession and people need money,” Quinn said. “But the opportunists now don’t have as many opportunities.”

In Fairfax, the decline in auto theft — 42 percent in the past seven years — is in keeping with the national trend. Quinn and auto theft detectives said part of that improvement can be attributed to aggressive pursuit of auto theft rings and the disruption of organized thieves who came to Virginia from elsewhere in search of specific types of vehicles.

Detective John Carney said a group of about 30 street racers — dubbed Team Project Honda — would destroy their cars during illegal events, steal other cars in Fairfax and then dismantle them to replace damaged parts.

“They were crushing us,” Carney said. “We set up a huge operation and put the crew out of business.”

Carney and Quinn said that it’s become harder for auto thieves to profit from what they do. Stricter motor vehicle regulations make it more difficult to create fraudulent documents and vehicle identification numbers to launder stolen cars and parts for resale. Newer cars sometimes have identification numbers stamped on most major components, and the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles has sponsored programs to etch identification numbers into car windows to deter thieves.

“You need to know how to get it, and then what to do when you have it,” Carney said. “That is limiting.”

In Prince William County — which has grown to nearly 400,000 residents, or more than the population of St. Louis — auto thefts have been dwindling steadily over the past decade. The 428 auto thefts reported there in 2010 — a decline of 45 percent since 2003 — left the auto theft unit with just one detective, Russ Crandol.

Crandol said the downward trend reflects improvements in anti-theft technology. Joy riders or “handle-lifters” — thieves who randomly check for unlocked cars to steal GPS devices, laptops or a handful of coins — are unable to hot-wire an ignition. Now they need highly technical expertise or a vehicle’s specific key with computer codes that match the engine.

“The key is the key,” Crandol said. “In order to get a car now, you have to be able to get into it, and then you have to have a key to start it. It’s become harder and harder to do because the thieves simply don’t have the capability.”

Car-hopping teenagers sometimes get lucky, rummaging through unlocked parked cars and finding a spare key inside, Crandol said. But many of them know that stolen vehicles can sometimes be tracked quickly.

On June 14, a woman in her late 20s woke up to find her 2006 black GMC Envoy missing from outside her Prince William townhouse. First, the woman thought that the SUV had been towed and called police. But police said they had no record of the SUV having been removed.

So the woman called OnStar, the General Motors emergency rescue and recovery service. OnStar was able to locate her vehicle almost immediately — it was on the move in Fairfax — and alerted authorities. Police found the SUV and began a stakeout, ultimately arresting two juveniles.

“My husband left his car unlocked, and my spare key was in his car,” the woman said. [The Washington Post generally does not identify victims of crime.] “They probably pushed the button expecting for it to be for his car, but my car lit up instead.”

Still, within 12 hours of the theft, authorities had the car, the key used to drive it away and the suspects in custody.

“I was devastated when I saw it was gone,” the woman said. “I was shocked that someone would take mine because I would think that most thieves already know about OnStar. Who steals a modern-day car? They literally just wanted to go joy-riding. They took the wrong car.”

Crandol said that the theft was similar to others in the same area and that he was able to obtain confessions from the juveniles in three other cases, including one in which a gun was stolen along with a car. Police recovered the weapon as part of the investigation.

March of technology

The auto industry has been working on anti-theft devices for decades, and now such technology often comes standard because consumers expect it when investing tens of thousands of dollars in a new ride.

Dave Proefke, a technical fellow for vehicle security at GM, said it has been a long evolutionary path to get to where the systems are today. At GM, it began with the 1986 Corvette’s Vehicle Anti-Theft System, or VATS, which used specialized keys that locked the sports car’s starter and ignition.

Thieves have learned to defeat such systems over the years, and the industry has responded several times with more advanced technology.

Now, there are keys with transponder systems that communicate with onboard computers using complex algorithms and trillions of possible codes. This makes it extremely difficult for someone without a high level of expertise, time and specialized equipment to steal a vehicle. Engines can be immobilized so they cannot start without making an electronic “handshake” with a specific key. Systems such as OnStar allow authorities, working remotely, to freeze out the engine of a stopped car or slow down a moving car.

“We’ve all but eliminated opportunistic thefts,” Proefke said. “Auto theft is not going to totally go away. There’s still money to be had. But the technologies have totally dried up the general theft for joy riding or transportation purposes.”

OnStar added stolen-vehicle assistance services to its lineup in 1996, and 10 years later, it introduced the ability to lock an engine remotely when a vehicle is reported stolen.

Matt Przybylski, an OnStar director and engineer, said stolen vehicles represent just a tiny fraction of the service calls that OnStar now fields, in part because it has proved to be such an effective deterrent.

There are 82,000 OnStar customers in the Washington area, and in the past year, there have been 73 stolen-vehicle-assistance cases, 17 of them in the District.

“Any vehicle that has some form of theft deterrent in it, the more likely they are to move on to the next vehicle that might be less protected,” Przybylski said.

At Ford, the company’s advanced immobilizer systems have brought newer-model auto thefts to a near standstill. Simon Hurr, Ford’s global vehicle security specialist, said the newest generation of the devices has put the industry ahead of the criminal learning curve, at least for now.

Hurr said that the current level of protection is “excellent” but that the industry is constantly refining its technology because “whenever you introduce a new anti-theft system, you’ve got a finite period of time before the crooks get a work-around.”

“The industry, in general, is ahead of what you would call the joy rider, the guy who wants to have some fun. That’s gone,” said Hurr, a former local police officer in the United Kingdom. “But organized criminality will always be there, and a lot of those guys are very well funded. There isn’t a car in the world that you can’t steal with the right amount of time and the right kind of equipment. But with the time factor comes the risk of being caught.”

By and large, the average car thief doesn’t have the time, or the skill, to make off with technology-laden cars, experts said.

“There are ways to defeat the high-end security measures, but your average knucklehead doesn’t know how to do it,” said Frank Scafidi, spokesman for the National Insurance Crime Bureau.