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Crisis Button: Help — my car was just stolen!

George Chidi
by George Chidi, Dimespring Contributor

My car was just stolen! What do I do?

What you do right now is call the police. Right now. Even if you're not sure it's stolen. Even if you think your cousin might have borrowed it without asking. Even if it might have been towed because you parked on the wrong side of the street on a snow day. Even if you fear the repo guys finally figured out where you live.

Call the police and give them a heads-up first.

“The sooner you call, the greater the chance that we'll be able to recover the vehicle,” said Lt. Larry Chambers, head of the Stanislaus County Auto Theft Task-force in Modesto, Calif., a perennial car-theft capital. The police will ask you if you have your VIN number, insurance information and title. Call now. Get the records later. They'll ask for a description of the car, including after-market upgrades and dents, and they'll want to know if anything valuable was also in the car.

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The police will also ask questions like “does anyone else have legal access to the car,” “where are all of your car keys” and “did you leave the keys in the ignition,” Chambers said.

Don't lie, even if you did something stupid.

Filing a false police report will cost you more in legal fees and insurance headaches than the car is worth if you're caught. Oblique answers will also cause the police to take you much less seriously.

Don't be surprised if the police don't immediately ride to the scene of the crime in a CSI truck and dust for prints. There's a fair chance they'll ask you to come to the station and file a report. (You now have no car, and the cops want you to travel to them. Yes, we know. This sucks.)

After calling the cops, you may want to ask around in the area. Someone may have witnessed the crime.

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Your chances of recovering your car aren't bad, all things considered – around 56 percent in 2010 according to the FBI's most recent statistics. Of course, the condition of your vehicle after it's found is another issue. In Modesto, for example, people steal cars most often to support a drug habit, Chambers said. They'll immediately strip a vehicle of its marketable parts. A recovered vehicle may still be a total loss. The average insurance claim after a vehicle theft is around $6,700, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Check your insurance.

If you're still paying for your car (we can talk about the merits of paying cash another time) you might be in luck. Most loan companies require borrowers to maintain comprehensive coverage on a car until the loan’s been paid off. Comprehensive includes theft coverage. Most other insurance policies do not.

You almost certainly need to file a police report to make an insurance claim. With theft coverage, your insurance carrier will cover repair costs, and may pay for a rental car until a claim check arrives, said Dave Phillips, a spokesman for State Farm Insurance. If you have theft coverage, ask them if it covers impound and towing charges related to a theft.

Your insurance provider will likely ask you the same battery of questions that the police asked. They'll also want to know if you're still leasing or financing the vehicle, and contact information for the finance company.

That's your next call. If you still have a car loan, you need to let them know your car has been stolen, and that they need to talk directly to your insurance company. Your insurance agent will give you contact information for the finance folks to call.

Finding your car.

Every once in awhile, people spot their stolen car on Craigslist. It's rare. For peace of mind, you may want to use an automatic notification service to alert you for new postings of cars matching yours, but don't obsess over it. Some people put flyers up with their stolen car near the scene of the crime. There's little anecdotal evidence that it works, but it may make you feel better.

If you do happen to stumble upon your stolen car, intact, don't just get in and drive away. Your car has been reported stolen. Not only do you risk arrest, but you risk an accusation of fraud by your insurance company. Call the police, let them know you've found it, and ask them to come get it for you. They should come much more quickly this time.

Still, your car is more likely to turn up in a week or two in a municipal impound lot, with the clock ticking on daily impound fees and towing costs. Locations vary, but without comprehensive insurance coverage you will almost certainly bear those fees. You'll need to call your insurance company again once the car is found. Ask the insurance adjuster to meet you at the impound lot. The car may be too damaged to drive off the lot, and you'll want a claim check in hand first to cover your towing charges.

George Chidi is a journalist and researcher in suburban Atlanta. George has covered crime, politics, technology and business over a 16-year career, most recently with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as a growth, crime and general assignment reporter.