POLICE RECORDS show that car theft is only half as common now as it was 10 years ago, and that thieves are now twice as likely to be caught.
But don't tell that to Bratislava businessman Ján Benetin, 23, who has experienced five vehicle thefts either personally or in his immediate family in the past several years.
"The attitude of the police towards me was very positive," said Benetin after the most recent theft. "They came, inspected the site, took us with them in their car and drove us around [to find the stolen vehicle].
"The only thing was, the car was never found."
While according to an Interior Ministry "Slovak Security Situation" report for 2001 car theft remains among the most frequent crimes, cases fell to 5,344 in 2001 compared to 9,698 eight years ago - a drop of 55 per cent.
The ratio of thefts that were solved with charges laid also rose, and last year exceeded 20 per cent for the first time since 1992.
Nevertheless, many Slovaks still believe that once their vehicle is stolen, there is little chance they will see it again.
Benetin has the disadvantage of living in the country's capital, where almost 40 per cent of auto thefts occur.
"Bratislava is a natural leader in car theft due to the city's geographical location [minutes from three international borders], the wide selection of cars available, and the anonymity conferred by the size of the city [half a million people]," said an official from police headquarters.
The official asked that his name not be used, to avoid compromising his involvement in field operations.
Another factor aiding car thieves is the similarity of car models on Slovak roads.
With Czech manufacturer Škoda regularly taking a 50 per cent share of the new car sales market, police say that thieves have little to fear that a stolen Škoda model will be recognised once stolen - even by the owner.
The ministry report shows a preference among car thieves for Škoda, Volks-wagen and Audi, with the latter being the best-selling luxury car on the market.
"Virtually every second new car sold is a Škoda, and the structure of owned vehicles is similar," said Radovan Cengel, a Škoda importer representative.
"Some types of cars are being stolen more often than others. Since we got a Ford it hasn't happened to us," agreed Benetin.
Cengel added that Škoda was taking steps to make its cars more difficult to steal, such as providing the latest immobilisers as standard features. "Other precautions are confidential," he said.
Finally, the high degree of organisation among the criminal groups that steal cars has also kept the unsolved ratio high, although recent police successes against such groups indicate the trend is gradually improving.
In March 2002, police spokesman Jaroslav Sahúl reported that police had managed to document the crimes of a major international group of thieves. "Out of the six people involved, two are being prosecuted in Austria and four here," he said.
More recently, police vice-president Jaroslav Spišiak led a police operation this July which resulted in the bust of an organised group operating across Banská Bystrica, Žilina, Prešov, Trnava and Nitra regions. Twenty-six people were taken in for questioning, although only three were charged.
The ministry report confirmed that organised groups were responsible for the overwhelming majority of car thefts.
The Interior Ministry report describes "car registration with false, stolen or lost documents" as the most common way stolen cars are sold domestically: "A frequent tactic is the creation of a 'twin', when the stolen vehicle is adjusted to share the characteristics of a specific existing vehicle."
Many cars stolen for domestic consumption are returned to their owners, although not with the help of the police. In such 'car-jackings', the group responsible for the auto theft calls the owner and promises to return the car if a ransom is paid.
"Usually [in these cases] the victims of the theft just call in later and say that they found the car on a nearby parking lot or parked somewhere in the city. It's very difficult for the police to do anything in such cases," said the police source.
In terms of theft for cross-border export, the Interior Ministry report notes that police are often helpless to punish the criminals because of poor legislation.
"A problem arises at the borders when the police catch a stolen vehicle that is being exported by a 'courier'. These vehicles are returned to the owners, but the couriers are not punished."
Police sources say that in addition to better-written laws, increased funding for modern equipment could also bring an improvement in their record against car theft. "Where there is money, there is progress. We are also proposing amendments of laws, but I don't want to talk about those, so as not to give the other side a head start," said the police official.
Not all reported cases of auto theft are the work of thieves. The report claims that around 30 per cent are feigned by the owners with the intention of defrauding insurance companies.
"This is a problem for the police. If our company suspects an insurance fraud it asks the responsible organs for assistance," said Lucia Bombošová, spokesperson for the Slovenská Poisťovňa insurance company.
"It is difficult to prove criminal activity in these cases," said the police source.
While Bombošová said she believed the car theft situation in Slovakia was very much like that in neighbouring countries, she agreed that recent and forecast increases in insurance premiums were tied to the pervasiveness of the problem.
"If car theft was not so extensive, insurance rates would undoubtedly be lower," she said.
Despite the rates, however, many still believe that insuring their vehicles is the only real protection they have.
"It's definitely a good thing to have it insured," said Benetin.