It could happen to you: why carjacking is spiking across the country and with younger suspects than ever

Remote school, key fobs and more are factors, experts say.

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It was a gray February morning and Matthew Monahan was walking through a Chicago parking lot, one that he had often passed through over the last decade.

“We’re getting in the car – routine – boom, a kid is on me, with a gun right in my face,” he told Audacy shortly after his vehicle was carjacked around 11:30 a.m. in Chicago. “A black gun, big, I think it's fake, I don’t know.”

He said two people who approached him seemed young, that they were all dressed in black and that they were wearing masks. In addition to taking Monahan’s car, they stole his partner Emma’s purse.

Thankfully, Chicago Police Department units were quickly at the scene in the Rogers Park neighborhood of the city. Although they found Monahan’s car within an hour, he and his partner were shaken up.

“I’m just glad it’s over and that we weren’t shot,” he said, adding that he had never experienced anything like it in more than 10 years living in the neighborhood.

Chicago Police Department officers respond to a carjacking in February  2022.
Chicago Police Department officers respond to a carjacking in February 2022. Photo credit Audacy

He’s not alone. Carjacking cases spiked across the country alongside COVID numbers as the U.S. staggered through the pandemic.

In Chicago alone, reports of the crime leapt from just over 600 in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, to more than 2,000 last year.

Carjacking is so out of control that during the Chicago Auto Show – the largest car show in the nation – Cook County Sheriff’s Office staff were on hand to alert the approximately 100,000 attendees about the crime spike. Outside of Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Philadelphia and other cities have also seen carjackings rise in the pandemic.

The numbers spike and the fact that younger people than ever – with some armed and dangerous carjackers arrested as young as 10 years old –  beg the question: why?

The numbers

Audacy reached out to law enforcement agencies from all 50 states to get the real numbers behind the crime trend and some answers.

Cities with the highest spikes included: Chicago, which jumped from 603 in 2019 to 2,025 in 2021; Philadelphia, where reports of the crime increased from 224 in 2019 to 840 in 2021; Minneapolis, where 104 carjackings were reported in 2019 compared to 655 in 2021; Los Angeles, with 363 carjackings in 2019 compared to 556 in 2021; New York City with 132 carjackings in 2019 compared to 511 in 2021, Washington D.C. with 142 in 2019 and 426 in 2021; New Orleans with just 81 in 2019 compared to 210 in 2021 and Dallas, where just 12 carjackings were reported in 2020 compared to 453 last year.

“It wasn’t something where this has been like a slow creep,” said Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart in Chicago. “It just really coincided with the pandemic kicking off.”

And the increase in extremely young offenders is startling. An 11-year-old arrested for carjacking in Chicago in 2021 was already a ‘prolific’ offender,  police said while a 12 year-old was recently accused of taking part in carjacking and fatal beating of an elderly man in Philadelphia. In nine days, two young boys were accused of carjackings in St. Louis, with one incident involving an 11 year-old who pistol-whipped a man while stealing a vehicle with his mother and another that included a boy 12-14 years old who robbed another victim of his vehicle.

An NYPD official described the Big Apple as ‘carjack city,’ in January, and just a few days ago, New Orleans police were announcing the arrests of four teens who were wanted in connection with a fatal carjacking when two more incidents happened. An elderly woman's arm was severed in one brutal carjacking in New Orleans, one of America's tourism meccas.

But why does it seem so out of control? Kim Smith, director of programs at University of Chicago's Crime Lab, told CNN that juvenile carjackings happened more often in areas with poorer internet access and lower school attendance. Essentially, if you add up shuttered pandemic schools and no access to the internet for remote learning what you get are more kids carjacking.

"The impact of the pandemic, I think, can't be overstated," she said.

According to data provided by the National Insurance Crime Bureau, Minneapolis saw the largest spike in overall carjackings from 2019 to 2021 at 339 percent, followed by New York City at 277 percent, Washington D.C. at 267 percent, Chicago at 171 percent and New Orleans at 170 percent.

Not too far from where Matthew Monahan was carjacked last month, another carjacking claimed the life of 59-year-old Rae Park.

Are carjackings a ‘youth crime’ trend?

“Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of good data on carjacking in general,” said Stephanie Kollmann, policy director of the Children Family Justice Center at Northwestern University. She has been researching the recent spike in carjackings in particular because many young people are arrested for the crime.

“The majority, around 50, 55 percent are juveniles,” in Cook County, according to Sheriff Dart, who cited a report by the University of Chicago Crime Lab.

However, Kollmann said viewing carjackings as a youth crime might be a mistake.

“I think we’ve been getting a lot of misinformation, frankly, about the role of young people in these crimes,” she said, adding that most carjackings do not result in an arrest and only around 5 to 10 percent of Chicago carjackers are arrested.

“It’s not always the most accurate thing to say,” because so few are arrested, Dart confirmed.

Young people may be arrested for carjacking more often because they are less experienced at driving and have not planned out the crime, Kollmann explained. Although she suspects that young perpetrators may be overrepresented in arrest data, Kollmann said that young people have faced new challenges since the start of the pandemic.

“Over the last two years, there’s absolutely more young people living under incredible amounts of stress,” she said, citing the American Academy of Pediatrics’ announcement of a “mental health crisis” in the U.S. Economic upheaval caused by the pandemic, loss of caregivers and changes to school schedules and more have impacted minors in the country in past years.

It’s really hard to tell the motivation for the crimes for certain, Kollmann said. “It may be as simple as wanting transportation in some issues and having that be inaccessible and having a very low understanding of the risks involved.”

For some, limited access to transportation cuts them off from employment opportunities and compounds their economic woes, she explained.

“There’s been a lot of speculation that this is done because of wanting to joy ride or wanting to use the car in another crime,” said Kollmann. “But in fact, we do know that the price of a used car has gone up 40 percent since the start of the pandemic. So, this could be an economically driven issue.”

Is your key fob to blame?

Another factor that may have contributed to the rise in carjackings might surprise you: anti-theft technology.

“The maybe unintended consequence of that technology is that you have to have a key fob to take a car – that means you have to get it from a human,” Kollmann said of the way most new cars are now opened, with remote access replacing physical keys. Some car thieves are willing to spend hundreds of dollars for devices that hack these systems, but those without the upfront capital may turn to carjacking instead.

In addition to technology changing car theft trends, the COVID-19 pandemic may have also impacted robbery trends, Kollmann said.

“There have been fewer people on the street, different patterns of pedestrian behavior,” in jurisdictions with strict COVID-19 protocols, she said.

Many carjacking victims in Cook County are sitting at an intersection or curb looking at their phone when they are approached, said Dart. Often, they can’t remember what the carjacker looked like and masks now make it harder.

“Somebody walking up to your car with a mask on means very little these days,” he said.

Not an easy crime to track

More often than not, more than one individual is involved in carrying out a carjacking – as Monahan noted last month when two men stole his car in Chicago. This makes investigations tricky.

“Determining where the car is going next, whose possession it stayed in, who was involved in the crime and who wasn’t, identifying the multiple people involved – it’s really hard. It’s legitimately hard for police to solve the crime, unless somebody makes a mistake,” said Kollmann.

“These cases are not being solved, there’s no two ways about it,” said Dart.

He said that most carjackers actually put a “great deal of time” into planning the crimes. They typically operate in a team and use a strategy that separates the person who threatens the victim with a weapon from the person who ultimately drives off in the vehicle.

Often even if law enforcement does find the car, “the person in there is not going to be charged with carjacking,” because they jumped into the car 10 minutes later, Dart said.

Since there are many different motives for the crime – need for transportation, joyriding, re-selling, stripping for parts – it is also hard to figure out where the vehicles might end up.

“It’s a range,” Dart said. “It’s based on what the motive was behind the actual carjacking.”

For example, a major carjacking ring was recently busted in Philadelphia. Dart said cars are found lit on fire or dumped on random streets in Cook County.

If the carjackers take a vehicle to use for other crimes, it could be even harder to track down.

What’s next?

Despite the challenges law enforcement officials face when it comes to carjacking, Dart said there could be an easy solution. In order to pull it off, car manufacturers would need to work with investigators.

“Our big hope here is working with the manufacturers, we will get a better ability to trace these cars quickly, which has been a big, big problem today,” he said.

Most cars manufactured since 2015 already have GPS technology that allows them to be tracked, but Dart said there have been snags when police try to track stolen cars. Sometimes, call centers aren’t open. Other times, car companies ask for a search warrant or for written consent from car owners.

“And I’ll be honest with you, with the amount of money these corporations are worth – you’re trying to tell me that they don’t have the resources to put a couple of smart people in a room to sit there and come up with a toll-free 24/7 phone number that law enforcement and victims and crimes can access and immediately get the tracking going? Come on,” said Dart.

However, he said there have been some meetings between General Motors/OnStar, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation and authorities, leading to progress.

Dart also attended a March 1 Senate Judiciary Committee special panel on carjackings to explain the need for cooperation between manufacturers and police.

“We believe auto manufacturers can be a great ally in this battle,” he said during the hearing. “They already innovated the technologies needed to track stolen vehicles. Now they must lead the way in developing a system to communicate in a consistent way with responding law enforcement.”

John Bozzella, president, and CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, was also at the hearing and mentioned a carjacking increase “across the United States.”

“This is a complex issue, one we take seriously,” he said, while also noting that customer privacy is also a priority for the industry, which can make information sharing a challenge. “We remain committed to developing constructive recommendations in support of continued collaboration with law enforcement and policymakers on carjackings.”

“This is a national problem,” Dart told Audacy. “It’s not unique to us…it really does require a national solution.”

Beyond working with manufacturers, Kollmann said that a holistic approach to bringing down crime could lower carjacking numbers.

This would include “better investment in the things that make communities safe, which is good education, good support – health-wise, economically and otherwise,” as well as access to jobs and opportunities,” she said.

Should you be concerned about carjacking in your area? Check out our coverage of recent carjacking incidents throughout the nation here:










Featured Image Photo Credit: Getty Images