Figures from the British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association reveal a string of daily attacks on its customers, by thieves frustrated by modern security devices, such as immobilisers, which leave vehicles impossible to start without a key.
Total BVRLA member losses due to theft rose to £8.7 million during 2001, a 43% jump on 2000, with 1,636 vehicles stolen, compared to 1,303 the year before.
The association's annual report said: 'There is evidence that despite, and perhaps because of, the sophistication of anti-theft devices now fitted to vehicles, alternative forms of crime are being used.
'One example is the increasing incidence of burglaries involving the targeted theft of car keys. At no other period is it more timely to remind all members that good old-fashioned vigilance remains the best anti-theft weapon of all.'
The BVRLA Industry Review 2002 reveals that the most disturbing increase in crime directly affects customers.
Nearly one-third of vehicles stolen were taken while on hire, with 7.9% of vehicles actually stolen from customers' premises, the highest figure on record. In contrast, greater levels of vigilance mean thefts of vehicles from rental companies where criminals have used stolen credit cards have fallen dramatically in the past year. Moreover, theft during delivery and collection now accounts for 11.2% of thefts, compared to a high of 35% in 1997.
However, staged collisions and theft during refuelling are on the increase, the report said. The figures are the latest blow to the Government's anti-car crime measures after Home Office research revealed overall recorded vehicle crime rose from 968,447 offences to 983,323 last year, compared to a target of 940,000.
Security experts have warned that vehicle keys will be targeted more often because of improved anti-theft devices.
A recent What Car? test found none of the 60 vehicles examined could be driven away without the keys. The BVRLA report said that recovery rates of stolen vehicles had improved to 62.8% last year, but damage to those vehicles totalled £1.37 million.
The report added: 'Whether the 43% increase is an isolated 'blip', or the start of an alarming trend will only be proven by time, but this is money that the industry can ill afford to lose.'