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What to do if your car is stolen

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Stolen car imageYou ran into the coffee shop for just a second, but now your car has disappeared.

The FBI says a car was boosted every 45 seconds in 2013; 699,594 cars vanished into thin air. But that’s a dramatic decrease from the 1.7 million stolen in 1991, when thefts peaked.

Yet big trends in crime mean little when you’re the one confronted with an empty parking space, or if you live in California, where nine of the top 10 cities for car theft are located. (See “The most stolen cars in every state.”)

So what do you do when you can't find your car?

Here are eight things to expect when your car isn't where you expect it to be. Warning: Simply waiting is a big one.

Make sure it's really gone

Searching for lost carConfirm your vehicle has actually been stolen. Rack your brain and make sure you are standing exactly where you parked your vehicle. Are you on the right level of the parking garage, or possibly in the east parking lot while your car is in the west?

You are not the first person to misplace a car.

If you are sure you are in the right spot, check for "no parking" signs or any other reason your vehicle may have been towed. Finally, confirm you have not been visited by the repo man. If you are behind on your payments, this is absolutely a possibility.

Once you are sure the car is actually gone, call the police.

Call the police

Call 911Phone the police and file a report. Give them a detailed description of the vehicle as well as the VIN and license plate number. The police will take down all relevant details, and then the search is on.

The big question is, will you ever see your ride again?

Progressive Insurance analyzed its 2012 auto insurance claims and found that roughly 46 percent of stolen cars were recovered nationwide. Recovery rates varied widely by state. If you live in Washington, with a 71 percent recovery rate, your chances are good, but in Michigan (19 percent), your car is probably gone for good.

The police will add your vehicle information to state and national databases that will make it harder for the thieves to sell your vehicle.

Ask your car where it's located

GPSNew cars are loaded with technology, and many of them can help the police locate your vehicle. General Motors’ OnStar system or Toyota's Safety Connect are examples. Hyundai's Blue Link can help police locate the car and even reduce the engine power to slow it down.

Many new cars have similar features; check with the police to see if your vehicle can help you find it.

Some pay-as-you-drive car insurance plans – the kind that measure your mileage and driving behavior – include GPS tracking as a way to deliver roadside assistance or summon an ambulance. They can also help track a stolen car.

Others, like Progressive’s Snapshot, don’t use GPS at all.

Lastly, if you’ve bought an aftermarket tracking device such as LoJack, this is where it pays off. Not only do car insurers reserve their biggest anti-theft discounts for devices that actively locate a stolen car, some manufacturers will refund the price of the device or even pay you a settlement if the car isn’t recovered.

Call your insurer and lender

Phone callThis should be your very next call after the police. "Call right after making the police report," advises Penny Gusner, consumer analyst with Insure.com, "If you wait, it may look suspicious."

If your car is financed, notify your lender as well.

You should call your insurance company even if you carry just liability, Gusner says, to protect yourself if the thief causes damages to other people or property with your vehicle. Typically, if you weren’t negligent, you’re not responsible for damage caused by the thief.

When you contact your insurer, have the following information handy:

  • Date and time of theft
  • Location of the vehicle
  • Location of all keys to the car
  • Title to the car
  • Names and contact information for anyone that had access to the vehicle
  • Detailed description of the car and its condition when it was stolen
  • Contact information for your financing company if the car is financed
  • Police report number

Find out if you’re covered

Relieved manComprehensive coverage will pay to replace your vehicle.

"Comprehensive is much, much cheaper to buy than liability or collision,” says Des Toups, managing editor of Insurance.com. "And it’s pretty much a catch-all for everything that happens to a car that’s not a collision: theft, vandalism, fire, even hitting a deer.”

The National Association of Insurance Commissioners says that the average driver’s expenditure on comprehensive coverage in 2012, the most recent data available, was $134, though that amount varies by state and the value and theft record of the car insured.

Most insurance companies will sell you comprehensive coverage even if you don’t buy collision. “If I drove a theft-prone car like an older Honda, I’d call it money well-spent,” Toups says.

If you carry only liability, bad news: Recovery of the car is your only hope.

Don’t expect a rental unless you’ve bought rental reimbursement coverage. Even then, you’re typically limited to no more than 30 days with daily limits of $25 to $30.

Play the waiting game

Waiting If your vehicle is found, immediately notify your insurer. Comprehensive will pay to repair your vehicle if the thieves managed to put in a few fresh dents. You would owe the deductible amount.

Most insurance companies have a waiting period of 30 days before declaring the car gone for good. After that point, your insurer will pay out the "fair market value" of your car – the price an identical car would bring on the open market. It’s somewhat negotiable if you can find comparable values.

Your deductible will come out of the settlement check, and so will anything owed to lienholders.

Most comprehensive claims won’t drive up your rates, Toups says. Unfortunately, any valuables left in your vehicle usually are not covered. But your homeowners insurance might kick in.

Your car may be found after you settle the claim. If so, the car belongs to the insurance company.

Keep up the payments

Writing a checkYou should keep making both your insurance and car payments until the case is resolved.

A theft does not affect what your bank is owed. That’s why lenders require that you purchase comprehensive and collision coverage. Your obligation to the financial institution ends only when the loan is repaid, whether you have a car in the driveway or not.

You’ll want to keep up your insurance payments for a couple of reasons.

First, if you intend to replace your car, a gap in coverage greater than 30 days will sharply increase the amount you can expect to pay for insurance. Some carriers won’t touch a driver not currently insured, Toups says.

Second, your personal insurance coverage typically covers you in a rented car as well. Otherwise you might need to buy liability and collision coverage – at spendy rates – through the rental agency.

Last, until you suspend on the registration on the car, you are obligated in virtually every state to keep at least liability coverage on it.

Prepare for the third degree

InterrogationExpect some tough questions if your claim appears even slightly suspicious. Don't take it personally.

Roughly $80 billion in fraudulent insurance claims are made every year, according to the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud. A fair number of car theft claims are what the industry calls “owner give-ups” – thefts made with the cooperation of the insured owner.

Investigators may look into your financial history, such as late payments, or your phone records and posts you may have made on social media. Adjusters will often record conversations, and at times it may feel like an interrogation.

Among the potential red flags:

  • The vehicle was recently put up for sale.
  • The vehicle is over mileage on a lease.
  • The driver’s license was recently suspended.
  • Recent increases in coverage.
  • Delinquent payments.
  • Police were not notified, or not notified immediately.
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