The ins and outs of having a car stolen in Chicago
September 26, 2013 2:23 PM   Subscribe

Our car was stolen. Police here seem to shrug it off. Is there anything else I should or could be doing, or just take it as a rather abrupt lesson in the transience of possessions?

So our car was stolen last week (along with my purse inside of it*) from the street in front of our house. We live in Chicago, in a fairly quiet residential neighborhood, where this happens sporadically but is certainly not an everyday occurrence. Our insurance work is in progress, so my question doesn't involve that particular area.

What I am confused about is how Chicago Police handles this. When I called 911 the day of, they kicked me back to 311 where I stayed on hold for 20 minutes to report the crime. The first woman was combatively rude (it was appalling really), the second was pleasant enough. The bottom line was "Don't call us, we'll call you. Good luck."

I get that there are much bigger problems the police have to deal with here, but I guess my question is this: is this like a real case that police/detectives pursue? Or was filing the report more of a formality? If I find more information relevant to the crime do I call them (I have heard mixed answers from 311 folks on this) or just let it rest in peace and keep working on my non-religious sense of forgiveness for the thief/thieves? Honestly, it's really been screwing with my head and I keep trying to just dwell on how a) desperate or b) scarred/hardened someone must be to steal a car (baby seat included - bonus!) in the first place.

I'm pretty sure having a car stolen sucks just about anywhere, but having it happen here has taken on a particularly Twilight Zone-esque quality.

* I know that was a major error and may have drawn the thief in the first place, but it was not my standard practice and a very unfortunate oversight on a stormy night.
posted by sixtyten to Travel & Transportation (16 answers total)
The police don't really investigate individual car thefts. They investigate organizations that steal cars (and chop shops and so on). They take the report so that if they discover a whole bunch of stolen cars, and yours is one, they know to call you. But unless you saw the guy who took it, there's not much for them to do on your end. Until they have the car, there's no evidence to investigate.
posted by musofire at 2:30 PM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Your post led me to this: Statewide Motor Vehicle Theft Prevention Strategy (pdf) There might be some information in there that you might find useful in explaining why the police aren't actually going to do anything about an individual car being stolen. There are also some heartening stats in there about recovered vehicles, although the number recovered goes down every year, it was 60% in 2010, average time to recovery 17 days - 93% had no damage, see pages 14 to about 20 or so.
posted by IvoShandor at 2:35 PM on September 26, 2013

The police report was something for your insurance company and any credit agencies and banks, and not so much so they'll get your car back.
posted by rtha at 3:12 PM on September 26, 2013 [4 favorites]

This is very much a locality-driven issue as well. I have lived in small towns, where a break-in of a home is thoroughly investigated, with fingerprints taken, etc., and in large cities, where no cop will come to your home, and the "investigation" will be taking your information by phone.

No one will be out looking for your car. The plates will be recorded so that it will be on a list in case someone is pulled over driving it. The knowledgeable crooks will have already switched the plates.
posted by megatherium at 3:18 PM on September 26, 2013

Property crime in big cities treated this way, Chicago included. They basically just generate paperwork that you can submit to your insurance company. Unless there is a violent crime attached to the theft, they won't investigate.
posted by quince at 3:20 PM on September 26, 2013

Can't help about your stolen car (although I'm sure it sucks!); just wanted to say you should cancel your credit cards and/or have them issue you new cards with different numbers; put a freeze on your credit so no one can open other cards in your name; if you had a checkbook or other bank account info in there, contact your bank and get all account numbers changed; if your house keys were in the purse, change all locks STAT! Plus anything else that comes under the general heading of 'preventing identity theft'.
posted by easily confused at 3:38 PM on September 26, 2013

I had a car stolen in Chicago and did get it recovered after a few weeks with minor damage--not so much because of major police efforts, but because the thieves decided to ditch it after a while. So the 60% recovery rate doesn't seem surprising to me. I hope you get lucky!
posted by drlith at 4:35 PM on September 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have an sort of similar story as drlith above, but at least after I sold the car, and cashed the insurance check, I had more money than I paid for the car. For some odd reason, someone put decent junkyard tires on it. Presumably after punching out all the locks, breaking the steering lock, and turning the interior into a dumpster.

That being said, the reason they're not pursuing the case is that risk analysts have decided that the Police Department spending multiples of your car's worth trying to chase down a stolen vehicle case is just gonna lose money. And they don't have a lot of money. Trust me.

Sorry for your loss. Although, on the other side, it might turn up.
posted by Sphinx at 6:11 PM on September 26, 2013

Los Angeles and not Chicago, but when my car was stolen, a police report was taken by the cops (for which I had to wait a whopping TWELVE HOURS, and they literally showed up at the scene, which thankfully was on my block, at like 11pm), and they were basically like, "ummm yeah you're never going to see that car again".

Twenty-four hours later I had my car back, though it was not the original cops who took my report who contacted me. Instead it was someone else in a different division/precinct/whatever who had found the car.

I don't have any details, but my best guess is that some other cops raided a chop shop and my car was one of the ones that was in the process of getting stripped. Since my previous police report was in the system, they were able to contact me about the car.

A word of advice: having your car found is, in a lot of ways, worse than never seeing it again. You don't want a team of police on the case.
posted by Sara C. at 6:19 PM on September 26, 2013

It's actually standard practice for every PD I have heard of for recently stolen cars to go into a BOLO (Be On the Look Out) list (make, model, color, plate) which get sent around on a daily basis. The issue with larger cities is that this list gets prioritized way down due to the increased volume of more pressing issues.

So it does increase your chances of recovering your car by doing the full report, but it is contingent on an officer noticing an updated BOLO and/or having the time to check similar looking cars for matching or incongruous plates (which are equally damning).

The amount of time a stolen car stays on a BOLO list does vary by the department and in So. Florida averages about a week.
posted by Debaser626 at 7:55 AM on September 27, 2013

If your car gets found, it won't be by detectives, it will be by regular officers on patrol.

When you reported it stolen, it went in a national database. When officers are "running plates" on their in car computers (looking for traffic offenses or stolen cars), and they run one that's been reported stolen, the computer will make a loud noise to notify them. Some even have a voice that calls out "alert! Stolen vehicle!"

Since you aren't near the southern US border, your car was probably taken for joy riding or for a chop shop. The first one will show up eventually -- if it does, det it detailed, seriously. If it went to a chop shop, it was probably stripped to the frame in under an hour.
posted by 1066 at 11:10 AM on September 27, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks so much, everyone! Between info on standard police practice and anecdotes about your own stolen cars, this helps me understand so much more! I'm not expecting to see our car or its contents again (not that I necessarily want to after the sad journey they may have been on) but this actually helps me wrap my head around it. Up until now it really was a sense that our family car up and vanished into a black hole, with no clear info from Chicago PD.

ID theft and insurance issues are already being thoroughly addressed so hopefully that will be tied up neatly soon.

If anyone else is still reading, wouldn't thieves of any caliber replace the plates immediately? I guess they'd have to have a repository of non-stolen plate numbers, but again I have no idea how this works. It just seems like if I stole a car, driving it around with the old plates would be akin to having a target painted on the car. I'm surprised that vehicles are actually recovered via cops IDing the plates as stolen.

Thanks again!
posted by sixtyten at 12:39 PM on September 27, 2013

My car came back with the same plates still on.

I can't explain why/how/what the strategy is on the thieves' part. My guess is that it just doesn't matter much. It's unlikely that you'll be stopped by the police while driving around a stolen car unless you've committed much more serious crimes. If it gets snapped up by the cops while parked, so what? If your chop shop gets raided, you've got much bigger problems than the plates on any one car.
posted by Sara C. at 12:44 PM on September 27, 2013

Best answer: If anyone else is still reading, wouldn't thieves of any caliber replace the plates immediately?

Going back to that link I posted . . . I'd suppose it depends on why it was stolen

Some categories given in that link include:

Joy riding: Theft of a vehicle for the purpose of riding around. These vehicles are usually
recovered quickly, close to the location they were stolen from.

Transportation: Theft of the vehicle for personal use. The stolen vehicle is usually abandoned at the destination.

Commission of other crimes: Theft of the vehicle for transportation to and from a crime scene. The vehicle is abandoned after the crime has been committed.

Profit/commercial thefts: Thefts perpetrated for financial gain.

I definitely think that any theft in any of those categories might preclude bothering to change the plates, especially in a city as large as this one.
posted by IvoShandor at 2:48 PM on September 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

When the police run plates, they can also check to see whether the registered make/model/color match the actual car's make/model/color. So that would make it slightly less easy to just slap on new plates to avoid detection.

(I've been stopped when the cops ran the plates on my '96 Geo Prizm because it's caught in some weird time warp from when Geos transitions to being Chevys, and its branded as a Geo but the registration describes it as a Chevy.)
posted by drlith at 3:59 AM on September 28, 2013

I've seen news reports of cars stolen in the US and taken to Mexico that still have their US plates on them, long after the theft.

It's easier for the police to check a car's plates nowadays: they usually just have to scan it into their in-car computer, and the computer spits out the answer, stolen/not-stolen. But that still presupposes that an officer does do that scanning on some specific car, which --- in crowded rush-hour traffic, for instance --- they might be too busy to bother with: I'd guess far more plates get idly run through the computer when the traffic is light and/or there's generally not much else going on.

Cars can be hauled into chopshops and broken down into parts in a couple hours; high-value stolen cars can be hidden in shipping containers equally fast; joyriding teenagers can steal a car and crash it before the owner even knows its missing.
posted by easily confused at 6:55 AM on September 28, 2013

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