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Why Your Rental Car Could Be Targeting You for Theft

How, you ask? Apparently thieves figure that tourists typically are (1) likely to be carrying more valuable stuff in their cars than typical locals; (2) once parked, likely to leave their cars unattended for extended time periods; (3) less likely to know local “avoid” spots; (4) more likely to be conned into doing something stupid; and (5) likely to want to keep to their schedules and leave an area rather than stick around to file police reports, ID perps, or testify at hearings or trials. And a rental car is a high-probability sign of a tourist.

Tell-Tale Signs Its a Rental Car

All rental cars typically show a sign or two. Although apparently you no longer see rental car fleets with licenses with something like “AV” or “HZ” in the registration number, rental cars usually carry less obvious identifiers. Typically rental companies fasten barcode stickers or identifying decals to windows, maybe both front and back, or maybe on the plate, to provide for entry in and out of parking lots and various scans of the car’s status. Some rental companies may equip cars with company license plate holders. Presumably, astute thieves know these identifiers, and you can’t do much about it. Even just an out-of-state license at least indicates a potential tourist.

Common Tips to Avoid Theft

Whether in a rented car, an out-of-state car, or even your own car, if you search the Internet for “theft from tourists’ cars” or similar, your search will return a laundry list of tips.  Almost all stress that you shouldn’t leave attractive target items such as cameras, computers, smart phones, and jewelry in plain sight when you park a car and leave it for a while. Don’t leave guidebooks and maps in plain sight. They even suggest hiding charging cords, which indicate that there’s something tempting nearby. They note that thieves tend to focus on spots with heavy visitor traffic, such as parking lots for national parks, famous monuments, and airports. One source even suggested leaving a copy of a local newspaper on the seat to try to show you’re a local.

Most sources strongly recommend making sure that your parked car and trunk are locked. In years past, some rental companies suggested leaving car doors and trunks unlocked, figuring that theft is inevitable and leaving your car unlocked means it will suffer no damage, but I haven’t seen that recommendation lately.

Smart Cars Go Rogue

Rental car theft has, not surprisingly, recently gained a new high-tech variant. If you rent a “connected” car and charge your smart phone or tablet using a USB cable, the car’s system may gain access to personal data on your device. For now, this possibility seems to be more of a conjecture on tech blogs rather than a real problem, but you can bet someone is working on a related scam.

Best Practices to Avoid Rental Car Theft

The take-away is that no matter how many precautions you take, you can never be 100 percent safe from theft. That means leaving as much of your “absolutely can’t lose” stuff as you can at home when you travel, and keeping what you need for your trip with you at all times. Beyond that, make sure you have personal property insurance and receipts for big-ticket items to show the loss if you get hit. And, use an adapter with the car’s “dumb” 12-volt power port or cigarette lighter socket to charge your smart device.


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Consumer advocate Ed Perkins has been writing about travel for more than three decades. The founding editor of the Consumer Reports Travel Letter, he continues to inform travelers and fight consumer abuses every day at SmarterTravel.

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