From time to time, a private investigator might be asked to track down a missing car. A car can be stolen from a public place, private residence, or a car rental agency.
Types of Car Thefts:
During economically challenged times, car thefts increase. Some people try to steal cars from rental agencies by using fake IDs to rent cars, and then simply never return them. Some steal cars for their own use, whether for regular daily use or for transporting contraband and later abandonment. Some turn the stolen vehicles over to chop shops, where the cars will be used for parts. Some just want a car to take on a race or joyride, and will abandon the car after using it for a period of time.
Some will sell a stolen car to an unsuspecting person, who has no idea that he or she just purchased a stolen vehicle. Sometimes, the owner sold the car in good faith to a person who passed a bad cheque. In other cases, a couple may have surrendered their second car to a re-leasing company to cut down on expenses; however, the car may have been leased to a "customer" who disappeared. Thefts may be for convenience – the thief may have some stolen goods to transport.
No matter what the reason for the theft, it's up to the private investigator to use his or her ingenuity to figure out what happened and track down the car. It's always a good idea to file a police report first, but because the police might not be able to take the time to track down your vehicle, a good Private Investigator can come in handy.
How We Track Down the Car:
A private investigator will use tools such as phone calls, casual conversations, and interviews. A good Investigator knows how to word questions and statements to get the most cooperation. Most people are shocked if someone they know has stolen a vehicle, and they will want to cooperate. The trick is in putting all the pieces of the puzzle together and tracking down hard information that is admissible in a court case.
Investigators can use license plate scanners, GPS tracking that comes with certain cars, handheld devices, cameras mounted on cars, or interviews with anyone whose job requires driving around, such as delivery workers. PI Agencies in some countries might have memberships in professional organizations where information gathered from license plate scanners is stored in a database. Surveillance on public streets is generally legal and does not overstep privacy issues. One popular technique is keep a watchlist of all vehicles reported stolen by owners, and using the scanners to detect license plates of parked vehicles. Since thieves often switch license plates, it can take time.
The human element in the form of social media and community alerts can work wonders, too. Many people have assisted in recovering their own cars by posting pictures of their stolen cars on social media and asking people to share. It's never a good idea for a friend to confront a car thief, but it can be really useful if they snap pictures or report sightings of the stolen vehicle without getting noticed by the perpetrator.
Clumsy planning on the part of the thief helps, too. Sometimes a thief will falsify an ID card to rent a car that they never return, but use a real address of someone they know. As we interview the person whose address was used, the person might recognize the description of the thief and give us clues as to where to find him or her. We can then conduct a surveillance and get videos of the perpetrator using the stolen car, which will be admissible in court. Once we have enough evidence to stand up in court, we can wait for the perpetrator to turn in for the night and immobilize the car with car boots before there is any attempt to make contact.
Over the years, Private Investigators form relationships with informants. Knowing how to befriend people who can supply information is golden. Cooperation from all sources is the most important key to solving crimes, and a good Private Investigator knows how to form those relationships.
Other sources of information, although not glamorous, are salvage yards, auto manufacturers, trash bins on public streets, and hidden cameras in public areas. We can also keep lists of vehicles with out-of-area registration tags on them, check on the vehicle registration for those tags, and track down the lienholder (lender) for the vehicle. That is public information and we can call the lender to see if the vehicle is stolen.
Another easy way to verify if a car is the one we're looking for is to check the VIN number, which is often in plain sight on the driver's side.
Repossession of the Car:
Once the car is located, it can be repossessed rather easily and the Private Investigator and client will agree upon the method in advance. Upon finding the car, it can be booted or disabled before the PI does one of three things depending on what the client wants: knocks on the suspect's door and asks for the keys, notify the police, or notify the client. It is never a good idea for the client to contact the perpetrator, but the client could contact the police.
If the client is a business such as a rental car agency, the client may instruct the private investigator to repossess the vehicle. A team of two pis will drive to the location, boot the car, and explain to the perpetrator who they are and why they are there. They will cite to the violator the specific vehicle codes that were violated and the jail time or fines attached with such crimes. They will be firm but also very professional. Most perpetrators will hand over the keys without too much fuss once confronted. If not, a tow truck can be called to remove the vehicle. This should not be done without hard evidence and knowing the laws in your area.
How to Prevent Theft:
Most vehicles sold nowadays have key codes or tracking systems such as LoJack or Onstar. Some have microdots that tag individual parts of the car, so they can be identified if the car goes to a chop shop. However, even very sophisticated systems can be bypassed by professional thieves.
The best car theft prevention devices, such as ignition interlock and pedal locks, disable the vehicle so that it can not be moved without the right key. If your car does not come with these devices, you can buy a self-setting immobilizer. Always lock your vehicle and park in the safest spots you can.
Unfortunately, car thefts are very common. Using reasonable security precautions and keeping a photograph and copies of vehicle registration information can help you in case of a theft. A good Private Investigator will work for your better interests in recovering the car.