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Drivers warned against winter car thieves

A car key electronically opening a carMotorists leaving their cars to warm up this winter risk being left out in the cold as "ice bandit" thieves target vehicles left unattended in this way, warn insurers.

We’ve all done it: gone out to our car, turned on the engine, and left the car to warm up while we pop back in the house or workplace for example.

But turning your back on your car while your keys are in the engine is a risky business.

Not only do you run the risk of your car being stolen, you may also find that you’re unable to claim on your car insurance – as you technically left your motor unattended.

And as the weather gets colder, the Association of British Insurers (ABI) is now warning motorists to brave the cold and stay with their vehicle while it warms up.

Nearly half of motorists - 47 per cent - admit to leaving their car unattended on frosty mornings while it warms up.

Last year the cold weather brought a surge in vehicles stolen by thieves on the prowl for vehicles left unattended with keys in the ignition with the engine running to defrost, the ABI says.

“Ice Bandits”

The figures speak for themselves:

  • Lancashire police logged 27 unattended vehicles left this way over just two hours. In one morning four cars were stolen this way in Greater Manchester.

  • Last winter West Midlands Police recorded the thefts of nearly 100 cars that had been left unattended while they warmed up. In one 36 hour period the police force dealt with 13 cars stolen this way.
  • In one day, five unattended cars were stolen this way in south Yorkshire. A gang of car thieves, known as The Ice Bandits, were jailed after stealing sixteen cars across the north west of England.

The insurance angle

Almost all motor insurance policies include a clause that excludes cover for theft if the vehicle was left ‘unlocked and unattended’ or if the keys were ‘left in or on the vehicle’.

So leaving your car unattended with the keys in the ignition and engine running could be seen as not taking reasonable care, and might invalidate any insurance claim if your vehicle is stolen in this way, warns the ABI.

Nick Starling, the ABI’s director of general insurance, said: “No one wants to freeze while defrosting their car.

“But tempting though it is in cold weather, never leave your vehicle with the engine running to warm up while you nip back inside, even if it is only for a couple of minutes, as it only takes seconds for thieves to strike.

“Stay with your vehicle while it warms up, so that you drive away in a warm car, not a thief.”

Disgruntled motorists

Consumer complaints organisation the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) says every winter it handles complaints from motorists unhappy their claim for this kind of theft has been rejected by their insurer.

Spokesman Martyn James says: “If a motorist is unhappy with their insurer’s decision then motorists can always bring their complaint to us.

“Complaints about cars stolen after keys have been left in them can be complex and is often a subjective issue, but we will take into account all of the circumstances of the incident.”

When investigating such cases the FOS pays particular attention to two main points:

  • Were the keys left in or on the car (whether intentionally or inadvertently)?
  • If no responsible person was left in charge of the keys in or on the car, had the driver moved too far away from the keys to make the prevention of a theft likely?

James adds: “If the answer to both of these questions is clearly "yes" then we are likely to agree that the insurer has acted fairly in relying on the exclusion clause and it is unlikely that we would uphold the complaint.”

Have you had your vehicle stolen after turning your back while it warms up or do you know someone who has? Let us know your experience with so-called “ice bandits”.


Naphtalia Loderick

Naphtalia Loderick

Naphtalia Loderick covers all things consumer for She started out on a weekly newspaper, via a national news agency and a stint in the fun but ‘not as glamorous as it appears on screen’ world of TV at the BBC researching consumer films for The One Show.

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