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Wheel thefts strand drivers



Wheel theftsJennifer Newman did everything right, but she still found her car up on blocks, the wheels taken by thieves.

As usual Newman, a senior editor of the "Kicking Tires" blog on Cars.com, parked in a well-lit spot near her Chicago home one day last spring. Much to her surprise, a text from her neighbor alerted her that her 2007 Honda Fit Sport was up on blocks.

As anyone who has been in a similar situation can tell you, there's no missing wheel database, tracking device or bulletproof deterrent that can stop thieves from taking your (literal) wheels.

This winter, St. Paul, Minn., police recorded more than 30 thefts in a single neighborhood in a two-month period, the Pioneer Press newspaper reports. Most were SUVs and pickups too big to fit in suburban garages.

In Framingham, Mass., wheel thieves are targeting Hondas located at large apartment complexes.

Even new-car dealers get hit. In February, thieves grabbed the flashy rims off 22 assorted Chevrolets in Texas City, Texas, leaving the vehicles balanced precariously on jack stands, bricks and junk. Some fell, damaging the undercarriages.

A set of brand-new rims and tires for a Camaro SS might fetch as much as $2,000 on Craigslist or eBay.

Your comprehensive coverage will pay to replace wheels -- minus your deductible -- but the hassle factor of dealing with a car that won't even roll is high.

Don't make an easy theft easier

Even if you have a beater, your wheels could be a tempting target. News4 in New York reports that dozens of such thefts in one New Jersey neighborhood are likely the result of demand created by the snowy winter's pothole damage.

"There's not much, really, that a car owner can do to prevent this kind of theft other than investing in a set of special lugs that require a specific key to remove," says Frank Scafidi of National Insurance Crime Bureau.

"Stock wheels are easily removed with a lug wrench, but if you remove and replace a single lug with a special anti-theft lug, then chances are the thief will not target your car," he says. "The downside then, if the thief is really intent on having your tires and wheels is that he steals the whole car! Remote, but possible."

Although wheel and tire thefts are far from high-profile news - according to FBI data, theft of vehicle accessories only averaged $540 between 2010 and 2011 -- such thefts create innumerable headaches for the unlucky victims.

Repairing what won't roll

Newman's experience included all kinds of time drains -- the tow company didn't bring the correct size wheels for the car so it could be towed, for example, and repairs took a week longer than planned. The good news for Newman and her family is that because they're located in public transportation-friendly Chicago, they were able to go about much of daily life without a car.

In a story about the theft of Newman's wheels, Matt Schmitz of Cars.com reported that the 15-inch alloy wheels are attractive to thieves:

"The up-level Sport model's standard 15-inch alloy wheels fit low-riding custom street cars and some popular car models; they can also be resold for hundreds of dollars in illegal markets. But it can cost the car owner far more than that to replace them, depending on their insurance coverage. For Newman, whose insurance provider classified the incident as theft, the deductible cost her $500 while the loss totaled more than $3,000 due to damage to the exhaust system and rocker panels. Plus, the family had just put new tires on the car."

Consider these ideas to keep your wheels safe and your insurance working for you:

  • Know your vulnerability. A few months after the theft, Newman was shopping for a new car. She used the National Highway Safety Administration's Theft database to find theft rates. "The database doesn't offer the most recent model year, so I also did an Internet search to see what sort of information was available [about] stolen Subaru Outbacks," she says. "Had I done this when we owned the Fit, I would have seen a lot of stories about Fits having their wheels stolen, especially in neighborhoods within five to 10 miles of where I live."
  • Consider wheel locks, as NICB's Scafidi recommends. "While wheel locks won't stop a thief, it may slow him down or even act as a deterrent, so I'd recommend them. I didn't get an insurance discount when I had my wheel locks installed by the insurance company. But it provided some peace of mind, so it was worth it," says Newman. A set of four (one for each wheel) costs $20 to $80.
  • Park with your wheels turned:If you can't park in a garage, you can at least make the theft more difficult.
  • Report a theft to the police, says Jim Sutton, president of James F. Sutton Agency in East Islip, N.Y. "That way it's received as a bonafide claim," he says. "It's always a good idea to have that type of report."
  • Review your auto insurance policy. Most wheel thefts are covered under comprehensive auto insurance, as is damage to the car such as Newman's sustained when the thieves stole her wheels. Your deductible will be due. It's always a good idea to check your auto insurance, prior to such incidents, to understand coverage. "Any car in any parking lot is subject to such theft and vandalism," says Sutton. "It's not unheard of to find a car up on blocks."
  • A fancy rim may not be covered. Your comprehensive coverage covers the wheel that came with the car. "If you have a $4,000 set of chrome rims and the factory wheels cost half that, you're out of luck," says Penny Gusner, consumer analyst for CarInsurance.com. "You can tack on coverage pretty cheaply for your aftermarket parts, though."
  • Coverage comprehensive

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