The unforeseen costs of having your car stolen

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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.”

11 Comments

  1. Ziggy Tomcich

    Holding stolen goods ransom and demanding payment from the rightful owners is shameful and should be illegal. Police departments that do this are as bad as the crooks who stole the property in the first place. Why is this sort of behavior acceptable? If I find stolen property and I try to hold it random and demand fees from the rightful owner, I would be breaking the law and I would be a terrible person because of it. Police departments are no different. Stolen property should be returned to their rightful owner without demanding ransom. It’s really pathetic that this is even an issue.

  2. Gibbon1

    What should happen is by law you should be able to authorize AAA (or some other outfit) to tow your car instead of the city contracted towing company. There problem goes away.

  3. Michael

    There is big, big money being made by the towing companies all around this. If the cars aren’t stripped on the street, they’ll strip them in the towing yard.
    Free inventory, plus cash if you show up to bail out your car. If you don’t, its theirs anyway.
    The latest thing is stripping license plates right off cars parked in your neighborhood. Popping them off with a screwdriver, put on a stolen car, keeps that stolen car on the road for another week even if its been reported.
    Welcome to Richmond. Best things you can do is put in a cutoff switch, lock your hood with a padlock (the Richmond Redneck auto alarm) , rivet your license plates on, and have a 10 gauge shotgun handy.
    The Bay is deep.

  4. Bobster855

    For many people in the Bay Area, it is possible not to own a car. With car sharing services like Zipcar and Lyft, plus mass transit, it’s something to consider.

  5. Did you read some of these quotes from the police?

    “There is no policy and no law that says we even have to contact people when we locate their vehicle.”

    They’re trying to make it out like they’re doing us a favor by telling us that they’ve done their job and recovered our stolen property–and then they want us to pay them to get it back.

    Don;t forget that the towing companies pay big bucks to the City for the right to tow our stolen cars and store them–all for a hefty fee. Of course it’s in their best interest to hook the car up right away and start the timer.

    Surely even in Richmond the police must know that the citizens–those of us who have to obey the laws with regards to stop signs and street lights and don’t have lights and sirens on our spare cars–can’t get from one end of richmond to the other in 20 minutes. Trying driving from Carriage Hills to Point Richmond in 20 minutes. Trying driving from the Annex to North Richmond in 20 minutes. I could go on and on.

    Yes, it’s inconvenient for a uniformed police officer to stand by and wait for the owner of a stolen vehicle to show up but guess what–the alternatives are far worse. Abandoning the stolen vehicle so it can be restolen or turning it over to the towing company who charges an arm and a leg to give the stolen vehicle back to it’s rightful owner–neither of these is a real alternative, is it?

  6. Kennedy Grad

    Richmond needs “tag readers” (cameras that can read licence plates and notify the police immediately if a stolen vehicle is spotted) placed at key intersections in the city.

  7. kf

    >“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.”

    No, you aren’t. If the car is not illegally parked, why do you tow it at all? Why do you take it away from where the owner should be able to recover it? Who asked you to do that? Do you have time limits for other crime scenes too? “If you can get here in 20 minutes you can have your wallet back free, otherwise it will cost you $$$” ?? If you want people to respect the police, stop scamming them.

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  9. Giorgio Cosentino

    This racket needs to be put to an end. A friend of mine experienced the same thing in Oakland. This problem has been reported on for years. The towing companies often have similar names. In fact, after one SF Chron story about a towing yard in Oakland, the towing company changed it’s name from A&A to M&M, or something to that effect. Same address.

    Question–if your TV is stolen, and police recover it, where is it kept? In a pawn shop? Do you have to pay to retrieve your stolen TV? I don’t think so. Please tell me this is not the case.

    The recovering of stolen property should be handled in a manner that is not motivated by profit on the part of any involved parties.

    As for the 20 minute time frame, are you kidding me?! Most of us are commuting a great distance to work. When we receive that call about our car being located, we will most likely be at least 30 minutes away. Factor in the time to get permission to leave work, and then find a way to the location where the car was discovered and 20 minutes is absurd!

    I agree with the previous commenter, if police want our respect, they have to treat us with the same!

  10. Diane

    I agree with a lot of the other commenters. My dad’s truck was stolen from in front of our house three years ago. We were told later that the impound lot had something like 48 hours to contact us. The thing is, they waited the 48 hours after impounding the truck before calling us so they could charge us 2 days worth of fees, even though they could have contacted us right away. I don’t really blame the police because they’re just following the rules laid out for them, but the guys running the impound lot were total jerks.

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