Theft victims get cars back -- for a price

Penny Gusner


Consumer Analyst

Smashed in car windowYou will probably be relieved when you get the call that your stolen car has been recovered -- unless you live in San Francisco.

In that case, you might be angry, too.

Car owners in San Francisco whose stolen vehicles are recovered off city streets and towed may have to pay hundreds of dollars to get their cars back.

The San Francisco Chronicle reports that around 2,000 stolen cars are towed to the AutoReturn private parking lot each year.  AutoReturn is the towing management company contracted by the city and county to transport vehicles and store them after a city agency orders a tow.

And while the car may have been stolen, the tow truck company has already incurred expenses that the city doesn’t want to foot the bill for, leaving the victim to pay to get the stolen car back.

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The amount due will depend upon how long the vehicle sits in the lot before the owner comes to pick it up. 

Right off the bat there is AutoReturn’s administrative fee of around $250 and then a tow fee that starts at $218 for a passenger car and can go up to depending upon the type of vehicle that was towed.  So you’re close to $500 out-of-pocket without storage fees.

If you can come quickly to pick up your car, the first four hours in the impound lot are free.  After that it’s $56.25 for the first 24 hours and then $65.75 for each additional day.

The company does try to cut some slack for victims of theft.  If you’ve filed a police report, which you always should do if your vehicle is stolen, you won't have to pay the parking tickets the thief racked up. And usually the administrative fee will be waived.  This can cut your bill nearly in half.  

Years ago the towing fees were also waived, but in 2003 an ordinance was passed to make the vehicle owner responsible, probably because the city itself was hurting financially and couldn’t absorb the costs.

You may, however, be able to pass the costs onto your car insurance company – if you have comprehensive coverage. 

Insurance may cover your fees

Comprehensive covers your vehicle for theft and theft-related damages and expenses.  But before placing the claim to get reimbursed for towing and storage fees, I’d recommend finding out if it’s worth it.

When you make a comprehensive claim, you have to pay out your deductible.  If your stolen car wasn’t damaged, just taken on a joyride and parked, then the fees you’re paying out may be less than your deductible amount, giving you no reason to make a claim. 

If instead the car is damaged and repair costs, along with other incurred expenses like these towing fees, are well above your deductible amount, then go ahead and make a claim.

If you have a liability-only policy, then you're unable to file a car insurance claim for your own vehicle.  You can, however, try to see the bright side: You got your stolen car back for around $200 (if picked up quickly) and don’t have to spend money to replace it.

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