The cops haven't called, but there's still a chance that my car -- stolen by some punk on Tuesday night -- will turn up at the side of the road. I'm watching the clock because the best chance of recovery is within the first 72 hours after a vehicle is stolen.
This, and other rules of thumb for car theft victims (which -- if you're a Pollyanna-ish driver like me -- are all probably news to you) have been forthcoming from readers and the helpful counsel gathered on the Buying and Maintaining a Car discussion board.
I hope you never need to heed this advice. But with more than 1 million cars stolen every year, sadly, you might.
Are you sure it was stolen?: The first thing, an alert reader kindly pointed out, is to make sure that your car hasn't simply been towed. Fire hydrants and "No Parking" and "Reserved For..." signs are pretty good indicators that the only person up to no good was you. In my case, the big, gaping, maw of a space where I last saw my car was not, alas, an illegal spot.
Who took it?: Besides being good-for-nothin' punks (in my book, at least), most likely it was kids (possibly gang members) who stole my car. Professional car thieves would be more interested in a later-model or more exotic car than my 1994 teal blue Accord. Still, the car isn't completely worthless to hoodlums.
When will you get your car back?: More often than not, my sources say, the car tends to turn up within three days if it is going to surface. However, about 30% of stolen vehicles are never recovered. (If mine was taken to a chop shop, I swear I'll search for my muffler on every passing Accord.)
What condition will it be in?: The prognosis isn't good. One insurance agent wrote saying that typically a stolen car will be used by gang members to score some drugs and pawn off anything of value in the car (e.g. my cassette player [I'm laughing at that one]). Broken window, steering column, glove compartment, and trunk lock and other accident damage is typical. A fellow five-finger-discount survivor offered this vivid description of the likely crime scene: "The police will probably find the car in 72 hours with a busted steering column, a few dings in the fender, an empty bag of chips in the front seat, and smelling of reefer. It will have been parked for a couple of days on the street and no one knows anything."
Was there anything that could be used to identify you in the vehicle?: Besides, say, the thousands of dollars in metal, plastic, and rubber lovingly picked out by you and topped off with a custom pair of fuzzy dice? If you keep any personal items in your car -- a gas card, paycheck stubs -- remove them right now. If your car is stolen with these identifying documents, you could compound the crime and become a victim of identity theft. Unfortunately, The Club can't protect you from identity theft. (Here's what can.)
Whom should you call first?: Line up a ride home, particularly if you are stranded someplace with no 24-hour diner in sight. Next, call the cops. The police will plug in your car's major identifying features (make, model, license plate number, Hello Kitty bumper stickers) and put it into a database that all cops can check. Filing a police report should cover you in case the car causes damage in an accident. However, it's probably best to make one more phone call as soon as possible -- to your car insurance company.
Whom should you call next?: After you call your mother and let her know you're OK, call your insurance company to let them know the vehicle has been stolen. You do not want to be liable for the car's adventures when it is out of your hands.
Should you cancel your car insurance?: No. First, your car (fingers crossed) may be recovered. Canceling it may also put a red flag on your name when it comes to insuring your next vehicle. Without continuous auto liability insurance, your premium for the first six to 12 months of the policy could as much as double. Even if it is active and the perps fraudulently try to make a claim, your insurer will scrutinize it closely and quickly discover what the bad guys are up to. In addition, your policy may offer other protections such as secondary coverage when you drive someone else's car.
When is it appropriate to stop grieving?: As far as I can tell, I'm allowed to be ticked off about this for quite a long time. However, the length of time before your insurer decides that your car is unlikely to surface varies. If you decide to stick it out for a while (it all depends on how quickly you need a replacement ride), you can suspend your coverage so that you're not paying to insure a car that's no longer in your possession. However, it is recommended that if you are going to replace the car within 30 days or so, go ahead and keep the existing policy in play and simply extend it to the new vehicle.
What should you do if the cops find your car?: If your car is found after your insurer has compensated you for the loss, it's their mess to deal with (although I believe you can still retrieve personal belongings). For cars found before there has been an insurable event, there are two key steps. First, if it is discovered roadside and in good shape, do a touchdown dance in your cubicle. Next, the mother whose son's car was stolen -- stuffed with all of his worldly possessions -- offered this piece of advice. "If there are things of value in the car, as soon as you get it back, look at the report they gave you and go immediately to where the car was found. If the perps dumped stuff on the ground, the police can't tell whether the stuff is yours or not, so they don't pick any of it up. If you get there soon enough, you might get back the ski jacket you had in the trunk."
Also make sure the cops search the car so that you aren't arrested for drug possession you didn't know about the next time you're pulled over. And nearly everyone has suggested that I buy several cans of Lysol.
If you buy a new car, will it be insured on the same policy?: It should. Make sure your insurance agent makes a vehicle change on your existing policy so that any discounts for being a longtime, accident-free client will still be in play. An unscrupulous agent may try to write a new policy to up his or her policy count and commission.
What else can you do to be compensated for your loss?: Check your renter's/homeowner's insurance to see whether you can get money for the items in the car that were stolen. You may also be eligible for a casualty loss deduction on your tax return, something best discussed with your tax accountant.
I'll continue to seek advice on the Buying and Maintaining a Car discussion board, because after tomorrow I may be in the market for a new ride.