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A Stolen Car Can Put a Big Dent in Your Day
By Alison Pence
It was 8:15 a.m., and Victoria Colgan was in a hurry to get to a doctor's appointment. As she descended her front steps, she fingered the keys to her nine-month-old, shiny white Honda. Then she noticed the empty stretch of curb near the corner of Hoffman and 23rd streets where she'd parked her car the day before.
"Suddenly, I got an awful feeling in the pit of my stomach," she said. Either her car had been towed, for extending an inch into a fire hydrant zone, or -- worst case scenario -- it had been stolen.
After seeing red for a few seconds -- and wondering how she could have let herself get talked into those leather seats -- Colgan turned around, marched back to her house, and called a taxi. All the way through the $10 cab ride and her appointment at Kaiser, she felt a growing sense of dread.
Once back home, she anxiously picked up the phone, this time dialing the non-emergency number at the San Francisco Police Department (553-0123). The person on the other end of the line checked the computer to see if Colgan's car had been towed. (Police keep a computer log of all towed cars in the city.) Unfortunately, hers was not listed.
At that point, Colgan was sure the car had been stolen. "When I told the police it had been stolen, they said, 'Gee, we already sent an officer to your block this morning, because somebody else's car was stolen too. Maybe if you run outside, you might be able to catch him!'"
Great, Colgan thought, the whole street's been targeted.
Not in the mood to run outside, she asked the police to send an officer anyway, which they did a few hours later. "He took a verbal description of the car, and gave me a case number, to pass on to my insurance company."
Colgan then called State Farm Insurance, and reported the theft to her agent, who promptly launched an investigation. State Farm also offered to pay for part of a rental car.
Meanwhile, back at the police station, her car's description -- a white, four-door '98 Honda Civic EX with sun roof -- was entered in the statewide computer database of stolen cars. Her case was then forwarded to the SFPD's Auto Detail on Bryant Street.
Within 24 hours, news came back that the car had been found, in Oakland. It had been towed by the Oakland Police Department and was sitting in a towing yard in the East Bay. However, the Honda had been totally stripped of its parts.
"It looked like a plucked chicken. The insurance agent told me it was a very professional job," Colgan said. So professional, in fact, that the thieves had gotten away scot-free. (In the three months since the theft, Colgan has not heard a peep from police.)
After State Farm's mechanics went over the car, they determined it would cost almost as much to fix the Honda as to replace it. The insurance company decided to "total" the car because the repair cost was so high.
Of course, the "total" cost of the car, as defined by the insurance company, was based on its current market value, not the value when Colgan had driven it off the dealer's lot nine months earlier. Colgan would have to come up with $4,000, if she wanted to duplicate the car she'd had two days before.
Next, Colgan was required to go to the San Francisco Police Department in person, with her driver's license and her pink slip. There she got a special release, which would allow her insurance company to take her car from the police lot. She faxed the release to the towing yard.
Then she had to take the title of the car, again in person, down to her insurance company, and hand it over to them before they would issue her a check.
A week later, Colgan was still driving a rental car -- one not completely covered by insurance -- and trying to find the time to research and buy a new car.
Noe Valley Has 7 to 16 Thefts a Month
It may be of small consolation to her, but according to local police, Colgan's kind of nightmare is pretty rare in our neck of the woods.
Most stolen cars are recovered, and 85 percent can still be driven, says Mission Police Officer Lois Perillo, who regularly patrols the northern half of Noe Valley. (Her beat runs from 21st to Cesar Chavez, and Valencia to Grand View.)
Still, Perillo says there are about 16 cars stolen per month on her turf, and an equal number -- if not more -- of car break-ins.
As for southern Noe Valley -- the part covered by Ingleside police (from Cesar Chavez to Randall and Mission to Douglass) -- in 1998 there were 11 cars stolen on average per month. So far in 1999, the figure is down to 7 cars a month.
And sometimes the culprits are caught, Perillo says. "A tip from a UPS driver recently led to an arrest." The driver called police after he saw a man looking into parked cars along Dolores Street. Police were able to arrest the suspect, who was booked on two felonies and a misdemeanor. ("Boosting," or stealing the contents from a car, is classified as a "petty theft," and is a felony that can lead to a year in county jail. Stealing a car, "grand theft auto," is also a felony, but can bring a sentence of up to six years.)
Rates Decline in San Francisco
Sergeant Rich VanKoll, an inspector with the SFPD's Auto Detail, who spoke to residents at a community meeting at Ingleside Police Station this spring, says the good news is that car thefts are on the decline in San Francisco.
The rate has dropped 45 percent in the past six years, he says. Police statistics show that in 1992 there were 12,508 auto thefts in the city. In 1998, that number had been cut almost in half: 6,834.
According to VanKoll, one reason might be that the Police Department's Auto Theft Task Force has been operating with extra funding in recent years. A 1992 state law now requires that $1 of every vehicle registration fee go to fight car theft. VanKoll also thinks law enforcement has improved due to better community relations, more effective prosecution of criminals, and better training of police officers.
This year, the Auto Detail is focusing on thefts from unattended parking lots. They are also placing decoy cars in trouble spots. The decoy will be an invitation for thieves to steal, and when they do, they will be caught, VanKoll says.
The Cars the Bad Guys Prefer
So what are the thieves' favorite cars? The ones whose parts fetch a premium on the stolen goods market, VanKoll says. Those include late-model Volkswagens, Toyota Camrys, and Honda Accords. Also preyed upon are Mustangs built after 1986, since their parts are interchangeable.
To counteract parts dealing, components of newer cars are now tagged with I.D. numbers, which correspond to the VIN (vehicle identification number). These assist detectives in their recovery of stolen vehicles and parts.
Thieves often get into a car by forcing the lock or breaking a rear or "wing" window. Then they hot-wire the car. "Or some people use master keys to turn on the ignition," says VanKoll.
Officer Perillo notes that car thefts and break-ins are more likely to occur on dark, quiet streets. They also increase seasonally, especially in December when there may be gifts or luggage in the car. "We also could see more in the summer, since even car thieves don't like to go out in the rain," she says.
Ways to Keep from Being a Target
Still, there are several things drivers can do to protect their wheels. Ron Naso, of San Francisco SAFE (Safety Awareness for Everyone; 553-1984), offers these pointers:
Z Never leave personal items in your car.
Z Park in a garage if possible. Make sure the garage door closes securely.
Z Curb your wheels (even on level surfaces). And always leave your car in gear or in "Park."
Z Never leave your home address, phone number, house keys, or garage door opener in the car. Don't make it easy for someone to burglarize your house if your car is stolen.
Z Make copies of your car registration and proof of insurance, and then cut or mask out the address information on the copies. Keep the copies in your glove box and the originals in your wallet.
Z Purchase a "Club"-type steering wheel lock, or a car alarm. "These will at least slow the thieves down," says Naso.
He also cautions that there are four to six carjackings a month in San Francisco. "Remember to lock your doors and drive defensively."
Locks, Alarms, and Tracking Systems
Like Naso, Officer Perillo recommends using the Club or similar locking devices, which range in price from $25 to $50. They're an effective deterrent, she says. "But be sure to get the right style of lock for your wheel, or you may be paying for a new airbag."
If you use a car alarm, Perillo asks that you set it for the normal amount of motion and vibration in the city. Sensitive car alarms are a nuisance, she says. (Your neighbors will wish that your car had been stolen if your alarm is constantly tripped by passing trucks and motorcycles.)
Some residents should consider giving up their cars and using public transportation. But if you must own a car -- and if the sky's the limit -- buy a Lexus, BMW, Mercedes, or high-end Honda. These cars will start only by reading a special microchip imbedded in the car key. Inexperienced thieves soon discover that they can't be hot-wired, and professional thieves usually choose another target. ("Immobilizer" systems like these are also available off the rack, and can be installed in a car for about $200.)
Meanwhile, Inspector VanKoll thinks the future antidote to car thefts will be the Lojack System, which should be online in San Francisco in the next month or so. Lojack, already in use on the East Coast, uses special transmitters to track your car if it is stolen. (VanKoll says keep an eye out for information on where and when you can get the transmitters installed.) The car's location is always known, reducing the need for a high-speed police chase. A car transmitting its whereabouts can also lead police to a chop-shop operation -- the kind of place that plucked Victoria Colgan's car clean.
She's Recovering, Thank You
As for Colgan, she is now driving a new car with basic fabric upholstery. She has also purchased the Club.
"I wasn't too attached to my car, and I didn't have anything of value in the car when it was stolen, but I am wary. I don't want this to happen to me again."