When Jared Wong left his house in San Francisco’s sunset district last week, he immediately noticed his car wasn’t where he had parked it. After walking up and down the block he concluded that it must have been stolen.
Four days later Wong received a phone call from the Richmond Police Department, saying that his Nissan had been severely stripped and was at an impound lot in a desolate corner of North Richmond.
The car wasn’t insured against theft, and the cost of retrieving it would have been $390. Oliver’s Towing Company—which was holding the vehicle—offered to waive $190 if Wong signed the title to the car over to them so they could sell it for parts. Wong cut his losses and paid Oliver’s Towing $200 to take his stolen car off of his hands.
Despite the circumstances, he seemed happy to just have the ordeal over. “They’re doing me a favor really,” he said. “The car is pretty much useless now.” Still it raises the question: Does it make sense to charge people money when their car is stolen?
Having a car stolen is usually pretty awful: Aside from the obvious annoyances—like unexpectedly losing a major investment you might need to get to work—there are also hidden costs. The base fee for recovering a stolen vehicle is around $250, and the costs balloon every day the car sits in an impound lot.
When a stolen car is recovered, Richmond police give the owner a 20-minute window to pick it up before the fees start piling up. Some think this is an unreasonably short period of time.
“What am I supposed to drop my wings and fly? God forbid I should be working, or in a doctor’s appointment, or tending to a small child,” said Rose Loera, a Richmond resident whose car was stolen from the city in September. “You’ve already been violated because you had a vehicle stolen… and then you have to encounter all of these unforeseen fines and fees. It’s entrapment.”
Last year, 1,866 cars were stolen in Richmond, according to police records, making it the auto theft capital of the country for small cities.
Catching car thieves has become a top priority for RPD—they’ve recently purchased license plate readers (you can read more about the controversial technology here) and conduct monthly stings. This has helped reduce auto theft by 23-percent this year, but police still have a long ways to go before the problem is under control.
In September and October, RPD recovered 271 stolen vehicles—or roughly four cars a day. One of those cars belonged to Loera. On September 21st, her husband parked their 1986 Nissan pickup truck outside of a friend’s house. When he returned the car was gone.
A few days later Loera received a message from Richmond police saying that her truck had been dumped on Maran Street. It was in relatively good shape, and she was given 20 minutes to pick it up before it was towed.
Loera dropped everything she was doing and raced to the site. When she arrived, her car was diagonally heisted on a tow truck. Only after a heated argument with the officer at the scene did the tow truck lower her car and let her drive it home.
“Two minutes later, I would have been S.O.L. I would have been one of the ones having to pay a very large fee to retrieve it out of impoundment,” Loerra said. “The 20 minute countdown time is obnoxiously irrational.”
Richmond isn’t the only Bay Area police department that gives residents 20-minutes to retrieve their stolen cars before they’re towed: Oakland and San Francisco have similar polices.
The window is so short because it’s inefficient to have officer’s watch recovered cars for long time periods. “Should we be paying police officers to stand by on scene while someone is located,” asked Darrell Wells, owner of Certified Towing in Richmond. “The fact that they give a 20 minute window is a pretty generous amount of time for an officer to just wait and see if someone shows up to claim their vehicle.”
RPD says the 20 minute rule is a courtesy to auto theft victims. “There is no policy and no law that says we even have to contact people when we locate their vehicle, we just need to contact them within 48-hours,” Sergeant Nicole Abetkov said. “We’re just trying to help people.”
Many other police departments don’t give auto theft victims the opportunity to pick up their stolen cars themselves—they simply send the owner to the impound lot where they have to pay around $250 to retrieve it. For every day the car stays in the lot, an additional $60 is tacked on.
Comprehensive auto insurance covers those fees, but many Richmond residents don’t have comprehensive coverage. Richmond based insurance agent Maria Susana De Saran estimates that only 20 percent of her roughly 600 clients are covered against theft. “A lot of people don’t want to spend the extra money,” said Joseph Militelo, who runs Farmer’s Insurance’s regional office.
Meanwhile, handling stolen cars brings in a lot of business for towing companies. Nearly half of the forty cars that Oliver’s Towing Company picked up in Richmond last month were stolen vehicles. Oliver’s is one of five companies that have contracts with RPD.
The fact that these tow companies directly profit from someone else’s loss infuriates a lot of car theft victims. “We hear it’s our fault, but how is it our fault,” said Paul Maes, an employee at S&S towing, which also has a towing contract with Richmond. “I have a job to do. I’m not just trying to take your money, I’m not picking on you, I didn’t steal your car, but still nine times out of ten that’s the attitude we get.”
While dealing with incensed customers seems to have taken a toll on Maes, he understands where the hostility comes from, especially those who were unable to recover their car within the 20-minutes time frame. “What if you work in San Rafael, what if you work in El Cerrito, what are you going to say, ‘hey boss, I got to go pick up my car’? What’s more important, your job or your car,” he said. “It’s really a catch-22 on that one.”