Auto Theft

Previously, our blog addressed what happens if a rental car is broken into, as that's exceptionally common in the City by the Bay. Yet we know outright theft of the rental car itself also happens. More than 92,000 rental cars have been stolen in the United States between the beginning of 2015 and April 2018, most of them not the fault of the renter (a limited number, such as the individual carjacked by a drug dealer during a drug deal are the renter's fault). So how does a renter prepare for the possibility of rental car theft and what does one do if a rental car gets stolen while under contract?


Don't let your car be used in a relationship escape!

Plan Ahead for Various Insurance Needs

In multiple blog posts, we remind renters that it's important to ask and plan for insurance-related questions in advance. When signing a rental contract, we realize we're responsible for returning the rental car in the same condition and realize that without appropriate coverage, one might get stuck paying for a vehicle (or worse) if an incident or accident occurred.

As noted in a recent post, there are three major insurance questions one wants to be able to answer before renting.

  • How to cover loss/damage to the rental car
  • How to cover loss/damage to the persons/property of others, and
  • How to cover injuries to self and others.

If an individual's not covered, the cost of a stolen vehicle might just be charged to one's credit card -- not a pleasant experience. Vehicle theft protection may derive from a combination of local laws, credit card coverage, personal insurance policies, or waivers purchased directly from the rental car company. Many of the AutoSlash team carry a Chase credit card with primary rental car loss/damage waivers (not a credit card pitch, just a fact), as we know that almost all of our rentals throughout the world would be protected against damage or theft by that one easy choice. Yet what would we do if one of the cars we had rented was stolen?

1. Pray to Not be Involved in (or Contributing to) the Loss

This one is simple -- if the vehicle's stolen while a renter's breaking the rental agreement, violating the law, or directly contributing to the vehicle's theft, that renter is going to be fully responsible for the vehicle's cost; the rental car company is going to ask the renter to return the vehicle keys. If the keys are not present for a reason that's in the renter's control, life is about to get bad (and expensive). Leaving keys in the vehicle or the vehicle running is going to nullify any theft protection coverage. Getting carjacked while breaking the law is going to nullify any theft protection coverage. A renter always wants to account for their rental car keys as if the vehicle were their own -- otherwise, the renter's running the risk of paying for the rental. Think we're kidding?

Each possible coverage comes with inclusions, processes, and exclusions. What's important to note among all these levels of protection is that the renter has some responsibility to protect the vehicle from theft. For instance, the State of California has aggressively consumer-friendly rental car laws but sticks rental car theft victims with the bill -- by law -- if the renter can't produce the car key or declines to file a police report within 24 hours.

(b) Loss due to theft of the rented vehicle up to its fair market value, as determined in the customary market for the sale of that vehicle, provided that the rental company establishes by clear and convincing evidence that the renter or the authorized driver failed to exercise ordinary care while in possession of the vehicle. In addition, the renter shall be presumed to have no liability for any loss due to theft if (1) an authorized driver has possession of the ignition key furnished by the rental company or an authorized driver establishes that the ignition key furnished by the rental company was not in the vehicle at the time of the theft, and (2) an authorized driver files an official report of the theft with the police or other law enforcement agency within 24 hours of learning of the theft and reasonably cooperates with the rental company and the police or other law enforcement agency in providing information concerning the theft. The presumption set forth in this subdivision is a presumption affecting the burden of proof which the rental company may rebut by establishing that an authorized driver committed, or aided and abetted the commission of, the theft.

While Chase's Damage Waiver coverage states:


Don't break the law, follow rules, and use common sense!

And Dollar's Loss Damage Waiver terms state:


Dollar's terms are parallel, as breaking the law is part of the rental agreement.

Life is so much easier if the car key is still in the theft victim's pocket! The general advice of "don't make car theft" easy may seem like common sense but ... we should probably stop there. We'll just progress to the next step, of calling the police and filing a police report.  

2. Call the Police

Calling the police to report the theft is required as the first step by all rental car companies. Instinct might be to call the rental car company to state their vehicle's missing -- however, the rental car company will ask for a police report number. The first call after a crime is always to the police. Even if the rental car is equipped with devices to identify the location, the laws of some states (namely California) require the vehicle to be reported stolen before the vehicle can be traced!

There's no reason to delay calling the police. Rental car companies will continue to charge for the rental and will not waive any charges before the vehicle is reported to the police and/or gets listed by the police on NCIC (National Crime Information Center). And as noted previously, failure to promptly notify the police -- while the vehicle may still be nearby and in one piece -- also nullifies any coverage one might have to protect against vehicle theft. Once the police report is done, it's time to reach out to the rental car company.

3. Contact the Rental Car Company

In another blog post, we spoke about incidents where social media can help solve problems more quickly than the telephone. This is not one of those times; the renter will want to call the rental car company in question and report the theft, using information in the police report. Most rental car companies -- after calling their toll-free numbers -- have an option to select when there's loss or damage of the rental vehicle. After all, the skillsets needed by personnel helping with a stolen car are different than the skills needed to extend a contract by a day! It goes without saying but document the details of the conversation and provide all information requested by the company -- for instance, Hertz Global Holdings has a single online form used by Dollar, Firefly, Hertz, and Thrifty

4. Call the Insurance Company (or Companies)

Remember earlier when we stated that we explicitly use cards with primary rental car loss/damage coverage? There are two reasons:

  • Our personal insurance policies won't get involved with the loss, and
  • We would only have to contact the credit card company -- not the credit card company plus the insurer -- if there were damage or theft.

If one uses a credit card with a secondary damage waiver, then the claim would have to go through one's personal insurance (primary) first. The secondary coverage normally takes care of just the deductible; whatever the primary insurance does not cover. And by the personal automobile policy potentially paying out as the primary coverage, the renter would be looking at premium increases down the road (literally and proverbially).

There are other options for purchased damage waivers -- such as those directly from the rental car company -- but those would be duplicative and costly for a renter who has coverage already included elsewhere. If one hasn't done so already, it might be time to read the Terms and Conditions of their credit card coverage as well as personal insurance policies; after all, credit card damage policies are one reason it's so easy to rent with a credit card and so hard to rent with a debit card.

5. Get a Replacement Rental Car

If a rental is stolen and properly reported, the rental car company will close the contract on the stolen car. That stops the renter from accruing any additional charges but then the renter's faced with renting another car. The rental car company may or may not allow one to rent a new car immediately. If not, don't take it personally -- after all, the last $35,000 car in the renter's care just disappeared! So if the rental car company that had provided the stolen car says "no", remember to seek out a car from a rental car company from a different parent firm. For instance, if one is a victim of theft with a car from National, the Enterprise counter is going to know as soon as the driver's license number is entered. The three major corporations -- in case one needs to find another -- are:

One Last Bit of Guidance Before We Go

A small number of rental car sites will allow "unattended dropoff", where a renter can return a vehicle while the location is closed. Keys are ordinarily placed into a dropbox and the rental car company staff will process the return when the office reopens. However, the renter is responsible for the condition of the car until fully checked in and we have read enough stories to "Just Say No" to unattended dropoff.

The vast majority of renters will never have to deal with theft of a rental car but if one does become the victim of theft, the advanced planning (including verification of insurance coverage) and quick reporting of the theft means one can promptly resume one's normal activities. Life shouldn't stop just because a criminal may have stolen a rental car; in fact, car accidents and potential liability scare us much more than the prospect of our car being stolen from a parking lot!  

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