HOWTO recover your stolen car

From an email sent to author Tyler Cowen by a reader:

Oh, and here’s a tip I hope you never need: if your car is ever stolen, your first calls should be to every cab company in the city. You offer a $50 reward to the driver who finds it AND a $50 reward to the dispatcher on duty when the car is found. The latter is to encourage dispatchers on shift to continually remind drivers of your stolen car. Of course you should call the police too but first things first. There are a lot more cabs than cops so cabbies will find it first -and they’re more frequently going in places cops typically don’t go, like apartment and motel complex parking lots, back alleys etc. Lastly, once the car is found, a swarm of cabs will descend and surround it because cabbies, like anyone else, love excitement and want to catch bad guys. Cabbies know a lot of stuff*. I found a traveling shoplifting ring in Phoenix once. Professional shoplifters always take cabs. So do strippers going to work but that’s another story.

Taxis and the shortest route home (from my email) (via Kottke)


  1. Call the police?  Catch bad guys?  Here you just report it online so that you can tell your insurance company that it’s been reported.  The police will eventually include your report in some statistics, and even call you if the car is accidentally discovered.  But nobody tries to find it.  That’s so Andy Griffith.

    1. Boston had the worst car theft rate in the country decades ago until they cracked down on the reason the cars were being stolen so much in the first place, chop shops.

      1. I grew up in Massachusetts in the 60s and 70s.  The joke was that you couldn’t graduate from high school until you had stolen a car.

        1. I grew up in Massachusetts in the 70s and 80s. My friend had his car stolen with no engine in it. We think they pushed it out of his driveway and rolled it down the hill he lived on and then towed it away.

    2. A friend of mine had his car stolen in San Francisco a while back.  Police said that most thefts are either for chop shops (too late) or people who want a ride.  The latter group usually get a lot of parking tickets (because they don’t care), and when a car hits 10 tickets the license plate gets flagged, they’ll notice it’s stolen, and you can get it back from the tow lot.  (He got lucky and that happened.)

      They also said that if you find your car after reporting it stolen, don’t just drive it away yourself, call the police and have them do the paperwork, so you don’t end up getting caught driving your stolen car.

  2. This is a great idea – however the $50 reward bounty seems a bit low in this day and age. $250 might do the trick. Also, a sprawling metropolis like Southern California (or all of the Midwest of America) contains only about one cab per 10,000 people, so this plan of action might not work. Of course, cabbies in London, NYC or Peking will be raking in the serious stolen car reward money now that this idea is out.

  3. I bet next he’ll tell us his 100% guaranteed way to pick up women. Or is it “One little trick discovered by a Mom in #{your_state}…”

          1. I had a friend who was regularly beaten up for the few morsels of change he kept in his taxi cash box, plus would get offered pieces of clothing or fast food leftovers in lieu of fare. Cab driver – what a job.

        1. They’ll tell you about “that one time” someone had sex in the backseat, whether you want to hear it or not.

    1.  As long as you know to turn it on soon enough, I thought stolen cars usually ended up in chop shops in a few hours? Of course the cab method would have the same time limitation.

  4. Would this work in London? Sounds like it’d work best with cabs that roam around the streets. Black cabs are the only ones allowed to do that, and I somehow think they’d be a bit chary of doing something like this.

    1. Only in old black and white ‘Carry On’ films with cheery Cockney cabbies in flat caps, I think.

      Black cabs operate mainly in central London which despite having a greater volume of traffic probably has much fewer car thefts than outer boroughs. The thieves and cab drivers inhabit different areas of the city.

  5. Or just buy a tracker in you’re that concerned (if they have them in the US). They notify the police it’s stolen and tell them where the car is. 

    Also, what on earth is the car in the photo? It’s right hand drive. Is it a Morris Oxford in India – Hindustan Ambassador? I can’t work it out.

    1. It’s a London Metropolitan Police high speed pursuit vehicle.  Don’t be fooled by appearances – it’ll do 35mph, and it has a tracker.

      Budget cuts.

    2.  Cops still don’t care. We had a couple trackers– one never went off, and the other got a resounding “we’ll get to it when we get to it.” We found the car ourselves, totally parted out, on the side of the road not far from my sister’s school.

    3. I have literally experienced walking into a police station, explaining that I had loaned my car a few weeks back to someone I thought was a friend, who must have made a copy of the key at the time, because my car was missing and when I went to his property and looked in the window of his garage — voila, there was my car– and they said to me “Did you see him steal the car? No? Well then, there’s nothing we can do.”  And refused to fill out a police report.  Welcome to the US.  Sure you really wanted to come?

        1. You want the rest of the story?

          After getting nowhere for about 15 minutes, I used the excuse of needing the police report for my insurance company to get the guy to write the basic info down (not any info about the thief, just the car).

          Over a year later, I get a phone call from a suburban police station telling me they have my car.  I ask multiple questions about what I need to do to get my car back, and take careful notes.  Show up with a friend, so I can drive the car back home.  Spend about 30 minutes getting everything sorted out, checking multiple times to make sure everything is right.  As soon as all the paperwork was signed, I was informed that I had to take the car at that point or else pay $35/day for it to stay in their lot (this was nearly 20 years ago, so that was a lot of money, especially to me at the time, which I’m sure they realized)….and THEN they inform me that if I don’t have proof of car insurance for that car, they will arrest me as soon as I drive it off the lot.  I point out that I have State Farm insurance, which automatically covers such things as driving a new car or a rental car, so all they have to do is call them to verify.  They refuse, saying I have to have an actual insurance card with proof that the car stolen over a year ago was still covered on that date.

          Oooooh, but….there’s a guy in the office who needed a car, and would be willing to pay cash for it right now to take it off my hands.  Trouble is, he only had $90 cash on him.  What did I want to do?

          No, I am not kidding.  And no, I’m not stupid enough to make a fuss about bad cops.  So there it is.

    1.  Or that shady ‘custom car’ shop up on the hill by the on-ramp that you only ever see cars enter and dumpsters/trucks exit and the one time you rode by there you got chased off by an angry looking gentleman who looked to be an enthusiast of the strange-bulk-under-jacket hobby.

      No, actually that might be dumb.

  6. Surprised there haven’t yet been any assertions that all car thefts are actually perpetrated by cops because all cops are evil.  I’ll check back later.

  7. I just buy cars way down the list of ‘cars most stolen in your locale’. If your car never vanishes, you never need to go looking for it. Also, I’ve noticed those cars are usually cheaper and get better gas mileage.

  8. How does this work?  You call up and say you have a missing beige ’09 Accord in Manhattan and that the cabbies should be on the lookout for it?  This seems impossible.

      1. sure, but assuming the plates aren’t ripped off first thing, then the cabbies will search for the one in ten thousand they’ll see for $50?  Maybe…

        1.  Well that’s assuming they didn’t immediately take it in for a paint job and have an aftermarket kit installed.

  9. I had my truck stolen once. Funniest part was I had a poster in the truck which I had just bought from a comic shop. I can imagine the chop shop proudly displaying my poster of “Batman and Robin: Warriors Against Crime.”

    Never got the truck back, or the poster, or the sweet Gil Hibben throwers which were also in there, but they eventually nailed someone for selling stolen parts from my engine.

  10. Where I live there’s a massive population of people that all have their own cars. No public transit, and TONS of cops to deal with the huge number of drunk drivers because there are maybe five taxis on duty in the area around the bars and 12 to 20 [weekend] cops waiting to pull people over. It’s kinda scary driving because the cops are a bit trigger happy to pull people over too.

    But yeah, that is useless advice for where I live.

  11. So there are X cab companies in a city.  Each company might have hundreds of cars.  (I guess one dispatcher relates the information to all the other dispatchers at that company?) And you expect the dispatcher to get the BOLO out to each cab. (That applies to radio cabs, I guess the pick up/drop off cabs will get this information when they take the cab out in the morning?)  And as he’s driving, picking up passengers, not hitting other cars, and rapidly getting people to their destination, he’s to to look out for “a late model black mercedes, plate WTF-1337.”  (Aside from those with broken windows, just how does a stolen car appear different from a non-stolen car?)  What happens if more than 1 motivated stolen car victim is contacting these companies, and the taxi driver has multiple BOLOs?

    Reminds me of the Monty Python skit “How To Do It” (anyone? no?).

    None of this is practical in the slightest.  Just call the cops and your insurance company. And start looking for a new car.

  12. A friend of mine, while struggling to find quality employment over a multi-year period, was moonlighting as a stripper-driver;  apparently, cabbies tend to harass strippers by refusing to except money and instead requiring an exchange of services or bartering if you will.

    That all made sense to me, but what I found really shocking was the strippers also preferred him as a drive because he was willing to break laws and had a very powerful, tricked out vehicle that could outrun most factory makes… …and why was this important?  Apparently it’s the patron’s following the strippers home that’s actually the biggest concern and taking cabs is too obvious, cabbies refuse to adopt aggressive driving to lose a ‘tail’ and their cars just don’t have the get-up and go to get the job done.

    Sorta sounds like a realistic version of Statham’s Transporter films doesn’t it?

  13. Around ’83-4, I was in a junk shop in Houston and overheard a conversation. It turns out a mutual friend of the customer and the shop employee had lost his car to a thief.

    As it happens, the customer was a friend of the Urban Animals, a skate gang that played hockey in the streets of Houston at night. Maybe they still do. Anyway, they spotted the car while they were out skating, and gave chase, cornering the thief, who ran off, and getting the car back to the owner.

    So there’s another possible method, but it requires groundwork.

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