What to do when your car is stolen
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What to Do When Your Car Is Stolen

There are more than 750,000 incidents of car theft in the US every year. More than half of these vehicles are eventually recovered, but a lot of victims never see their car again.

If your car was recently stolen, what you do next is crucial.

There’s no way to guarantee that you’ll get your car back (or that it’ll be in the same condition it was before), but you can significantly increase the chances of recovering your car by following the steps outlined here. Failing to take these steps doesn’t just make it harder to recover your vehicle, either. If you don’t follow this process, you could be liable for crimes committed using your car, and your insurance company may leave you on the hook for any damages to your vehicle.

Once we’ve covered everything you need to do right away, we’ll also talk about what happens if your car is found, what you can do to prevent this from happening in the future, and how to increase your odds of recovering your vehicle if this ever happens again.

Here’s the first thing you need to do if you think someone stole your car.

Make sure it’s actually stolen

At this point you’re probably pretty confident your car was stolen. But while it’s important to take action quickly, you also don’t want to deal with the embarrassment of a false alarm. If you didn’t see someone steal your car, there could be several other reasons why it isn’t where you think it should be, and you’ll want to rule those out before you dial 911. (If you’re really sure it’s stolen, skip ahead to step two.)

Could it be parked somewhere else?

It’s easy to get lost in a large parking garage or parking lot. At some point, most people have experienced the panic of forgetting where you parked. You’re more likely to experience this if you’ve been under a lot of stress or have a lot on your mind. Make sure your car isn’t on another floor or a few aisles over. 

If your car was in your garage or your designated parking spot, this probably isn’t the case. 

Did your car get towed?

Nobody’s going to tow your car out of your driveway (unless it was repossessed), but if you parked somewhere you shouldn’t have, someone may have called a tow company to get your car out of there. If you were parked near a business, check for towing signs, or go inside and ask if they had your car towed. Make sure you find out which tow company they use. 

Major cities often have websites dedicated to helping people locate their towed cars. Google “[your city] towed car locator” to see if your city has one. If it does, you’ll just need to share some basic information about your vehicle (or possibly you) to see if your car was impounded. You can also dial 311 to reach your city’s information hotline, or call your local police department (not 911) to see if it was impounded.

Does anyone else have keys?

If a family member, significant other, roommate, or someone else has access to your keys, it’s possible that they drove your car somewhere without your knowledge or even loaned the keys to someone. If you have multiple sets of keys, take a moment to confirm that they’re all where they should be.

Check your GPS tracker

If your car has a GPS tracker installed, this whole process is going to be a lot easier. Depending on how your GPS tracker works, it may even alert you when your vehicle is moving or if it leaves a designated area like your property or parking lot. With real-time tracking, you can check and see where your car is right now. You probably shouldn’t go after it yourself, but you can use your GPS tracker to lead the police straight to your vehicle. In fact, getting a GPS tracker for your car is the biggest way to ensure a quick recovery if it’s ever stolen.

Once you’ve confirmed that your car is stolen, here’s what to do next.

Report your car as stolen to the police

The sooner you officially report your car stolen, the sooner the police can start looking for it. You should definitely aim to file a police report within 24 hours. Delaying this step can significantly reduce the likelihood that the police will find your car, and it also looks suspicious to your insurance company. (It can be a signal that someone is attempting to commit insurance fraud. More on that later.)

This is an instance where you should call 911. Your local dispatch center may have a non-emergency line which you can call, but even if that’s the case, 911 is a safe option. Ideally, you should have information about your car handy, but don’t let that delay you for too long. After you talk to the dispatcher, an officer will be assigned to your case and they’ll call to confirm your account and collect additional information.

The police will want to know basic information like your car’s make, model, and license plate. Without those three pieces, they won’t be able to find your car.  Unfortunately, a lot of people never recover their vehicles because they couldn’t remember the license plate number and didn’t keep it somewhere accessible. This information is always included on the vehicle registration, but that’s supposed to stay in the car, so your registration shouldn’t be the only place you keep it. 

You don’t necessarily need to have your vehicle identification number (VIN), but it is helpful. If you can’t remember your license plate number, your VIN should still be on your insurance card or accessible through your insurance company’s website. The police use your VIN to coordinate with other agencies through online databases, so this can help recover your vehicle if it shows up in another city or state.

The police will want to know about any distinguishing features such as color, damage, bumper stickers, or accessories. This makes it easier for officers to quickly identify your car on the road. Ideally, you should have some pictures of your car.

You should also expect questions about where your car was, what time you saw it last, whether or not it was unlocked, who has access to it, and how much gas was in the tank.

You don’t need to do anything special to file an official police report. But you’ll likely have to sign a document confirming that you want to press charges for the theft and that you are aware of the consequences of perjury. This is basically just affirming that your account is accurate and you’re serious about moving forward with this.

Once you’ve contacted the police, it’s time to talk to your insurance company. Don’t delay this step, either!

Notify your insurance company

Your insurance company will expect you to notify them that your car was stolen within 24 hours. Once you do, they’re going to do two things:

  1. Help you deal with the logistics and paperwork
  2. Launch an investigation into possible insurance fraud

Waiting to talk to your insurance company can increase the risk that you could be held liable for damage caused by the car thief. If you have comprehensive insurance coverage, it can also delay your compensation for the theft. Your insurance plan may also have rental reimbursement coverage to make sure you have transportation while the police attempt to recover your car.

Your insurance company is going to ask for a lot of the same information the police did, but they may also be more interested in how your car was stolen. Did you do something that increased the risk of theft? Are all your keys accounted for? What was in the car? If you had to finance your vehicle, they’ll also want the contact information for the finance or lease company.

Keep in mind: it’s extremely important that what you told the police lines up with what you tell your insurance company. One of the first things your insurance company is going to do is verify that your police report confirms your claim. If there are discrepancies here, that can be another sign of attempted insurance fraud, and it makes it more difficult for them to be sure what happened.

Does your car insurance cover theft?

Unfortunately, not all car insurance plans cover theft. If you opted for the minimum insurance policy your state requires, it likely only includes coverage to protect other people and drivers if you’re ever at fault in an accident. 

To receive compensation when your car is stolen, you need comprehensive insurance coverage. Depending on the kind of coverage you have, you’ll likely need to pay a deductible of some kind, but your insurance company will begin the process of determining the value of your car and paying you accordingly. Your level of coverage may impact what percentage of that value your insurance will repay. You might be able to dispute this value if you have reason to believe their estimate is wrong (though that’s pretty unlikely in the age of Kelly Blue Book).

If you’re eligible for compensation, don’t expect to see it immediately. Your insurance company will probably withhold payment for a set period of time in case your car is recovered. They would prefer you get your car back, too!

Call your leasing or finance company

If your car is on a lease, or you took out a car loan to finance it, there’s one more party that needs to know it was stolen: the people who own it. While you’re the one who just lost your transportation, they just lost an asset. Unfortunately, this means your insurance company will compensate the company that financed your vehicle instead of paying you directly. But the good news is, you won’t have to pay for a car that’s no longer in your possession.

Make a list of items that were in your car

When your car gets stolen, you don’t just lose the vehicle—everything inside your car gets stolen, too. Laptops, purses, electronics, weapons, everything. The police will definitely want to know if the car thief is now also in possession of a gun. And you’ll want to have a complete list of all the items you need to replace.

Your car insurance won’t compensate you for these stolen items, but if your car was at home when it was stolen, your homeowners insurance should at least partially cover their value. (In which case you’ll need to file a claim with them as well.)

Search for your vehicle online

While the police are actively looking for your car, you can put your personal time to use as well. Depending on the make and model of your car, a thief may want to sell it for parts or sell it outright online. It might surprise you to learn that many of the most commonly stolen cars are late 90s models, which people use for parts.

A car thief won’t be sneaking their way onto the lot of any reputable dealership, but it’s not uncommon to find stolen cars and parts on online marketplaces like Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace.

You should also definitely post about your stolen vehicle in public places. The more people you can enlist to help you look, the better your odds of finding your car.

What happens if your stolen vehicle is recovered?

If you or the police manage to recover your vehicle, congratulations! You’re one of the lucky ones. But this chapter of your life isn’t quite over yet. Your car may not be in the same condition it was before it was stolen. And if your insurance company has already paid you or the financing company, that throws a wrinkle in this process as well. (They technically own your car now.)

In any case, you need to immediately notify your insurance company that the vehicle has been recovered.

Assuming your car was recovered before your insurance company compensated anyone, you have comprehensive car insurance, and there was damage, then your insurance will handle this similar to how they’d handle an accident claim where you weren’t at fault. They’ll either pay to have it fixed, or if the cost of repairs exceeds the value of the vehicle, they’ll say it’s totalled, and they’ll pay you the value of the car (prior to the accident). Then you can either sell it as scrap or if it’s still usable, you can get a “salvage title,” which lets you keep driving it.

If your insurance company already compensated you or someone else for the car, then they own it now. Depending on your situation and your insurer, you may be able to buy it back.

How to prevent car theft

Car theft is incredibly frustrating and stressful. You may feel like you and your property are no longer safe. And you’ll probably be more worried about car theft than your friends and family, who may take their security for granted. But you don’t have to panic every time you park your car in a new place. 

You can’t completely prevent car theft—you can’t control other people. But you can take steps to drastically reduce the likelihood that a car thief will choose your car. And you can make preparations to ensure that if your car is ever stolen again, you can recover it quickly.

To reduce the odds of car theft, you should:

  1. Park in well lit, visible areas. Car thieves are more likely to target vehicles in locations where no one can watch.
  2. Limit the number of people who have keys or access to your car. The more keys there are, and the more hands they pass through, the more likely they are to wind up in the wrong hands.
  3. Don’t leave valuables or bags visible. Thieves often break into cars for valuable items and then decide to steal the car itself.
  4. Never leave the keys in the ignition.
  5. Always lock your car doors.

To help ensure a speedy recovery in the event that your car is stolen, you should:

  1. Get a GPS tracker for your car. This will help you learn the moment your car is stolen and it will lead the police right to it.
  2. Make sure you have your license plate information somewhere other than your vehicle registration. (You could even make copies of your vehicle registration.)
  3. Keep current pictures of your car somewhere. Every time there’s a significant change to your car’s appearance, take new pictures.

The fastest way to recover your stolen vehicle

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, car theft cost victims an average of $7,680 in 2016. Losing your car is a major setback, and a good deal of Americans never see their stolen cars again. 

But with a good GPS tracker, that doesn’t have to be how your story ends. When someone steals your car, time is of the essence. Every moment someone else is behind the wheel increases their opportunity to get away, cause damage, or commit crime with your vehicle. GPS trackers let you create alerts and receive notifications the moment someone steals your car, but more importantly, they make sure the police can find your car.

Our bestselling GPS tracker for cars is the GL300MA. It’s small and discreet. It has a long-lasting battery. It lets you track in real-time. And you can create instant text or email alerts using geofencing. It’s also highly affordable—for as little as $49.95, you can greatly increase the odds of a speedy recovery if your vehicle is ever stolen.

Check out the GL300MA.