It’s a helpless feeling. You walk outside to where your car should be, and it’s gone. After repeatedly trying to figure out where it could be, it suddenly dawns on you that your car has likely been stolen.
This gut-wrenching feeling happens more than you might think. According to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a car is stolen roughly every 44 seconds in the U.S.
If this happens to you, it’s important to be prepared. Insurance agents offer tips on what to do if you’re unfortunate enough to become a victim of car theft.
1. Determine if your car was stolen
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The first thing auto experts and insurance agents recommend is to try to keep a clear head.
“Stay calm,” says Bill Wagner, owner of Brightway Insurance in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. “At the end of the day, this is why you carry insurance.”
It’s possible the car was towed or misplaced, Wagner adds. Some people are towed when they park in a no-parking spot without knowing it. Check with local towing companies or the owner of the lot where you parked to see if your vehicle has been towed. There are also websites where drivers can input their car’s vehicle identification number (VIN) to search if it’s been towed.
“First of all, don’t panic,” says Herb Monson, owner of the Herb Monson Agency in Burnsville, Minnesota. “Retrace your steps and try to eliminate possible alternatives like, did a relative borrow it without asking?”
2. Call police if your car is stolen
If you determine the car’s been stolen, alert the authorities.
“Call (police) and report it missing,” Wagner says. “Most auto insurance carriers print your car’s vehicle identification number on your insurance card. Use it to provide the VIN to law enforcement.”
After contacting police, fill out a police report before contacting your insurance agent. Geico, for example, won’t honor a claim unless a police report is filed first.
Many newer vehicles feature GPS technology, which can help authorities track or even stop a stolen car. Notify the police if your car has GPS or telematics capabilities that could help them track it.
Also, make sure to include any additional information in the report that might help law enforcement retrieve the car, such as the make, model, color and any other distinguishable characteristics, Wagner says. In addition to the VIN, be sure to provide the license plate number.
3. Contact your insurance company after theft
After notifying police, contact your insurance company to start the claim process.
“Try to remember everything that was in the vehicle and make a list,” says Suzanne Brown, owner of Suzanne Brown Insurance Agency in Houston.
According to Geico, you'll need to provide the vehicle’s title, the location of all keys, the names of people who had access to the vehicle, and personal property in the vehicle.
“The agent will walk you through some detailed questions to set up a claim for you,” Monson says. “Keep in mind, it’s the comprehensive coverage on your auto policy that affords coverage for theft, so confirm with your agent that this coverage existed prior to the theft. An old beater with liability coverage only will not be covered.”
That said, even if you have only liability coverage, you should still notify your insurance company. That can protect you should the thieves cause damage to other property with your stolen vehicle.
If you’re leasing or financing the vehicle, contact that lender and notify them of the theft. Geico recommends on its site to have the financier or leaser work directly with your insurance company to discuss the case.
Brown says if you’re with your vehicle and someone tries to steal it, allow the thieves to take it without resisting.
“Make sure you’re not in danger, stay alert and call the police,” she says.
Police say many thefts can be avoided by locking doors and closing windows.
“A good rule of thumb is to keep as little as possible in your car,” Wagner says. “That way you don’t have to remember a long list of personal belongings that will go missing if the car gets stolen. Never leave valuables in plain sight. If you have to leave a laptop in the car, put it in the trunk where no one can see it. And always lock your car doors.”
If your car is recovered, contact your insurer so they can assess any damage and determine if it needs to be repaired or replaced.
Tom Moor is an automotive reporter at www.AngiesList.com, a trusted provider of local consumer reviews and an online marketplace of services from top-rated providers.