When Cameron Scott walked out of her Mission district flat one January evening, she was shocked to find that someone had stolen the battered 1994 Honda Civic she had become so attached to.
But what shocked Scott, a 36-year-old communications manager for a San Francisco nonprofit, was how her car could be taken from her again, this time by the tow company contracted by The City, which wanted more than $400.
“It felt like my car was being stolen all over again,” she said.
Scott is one of thousands victimized by car thieves in The City every year, and representative of another group almost as large that is blasted with towing charges after police recover the stolen car. Sometimes, it is so expensive it’s easier to sign over the pink slip rather than pay the fees.
While motor-vehicle theft has dropped in the last three years, thousands of cars are stolen each year. In 2007, on an average of 17 cars were stolen each day in San Francisco. What’s more staggering is that the San Francisco Police Department recovers almost all of them — about 95 percent, according to policespokesman Sgt. Steve Mannina.
After recovery, police must follow a strict protocol spelled out in the department’s general orders. If the vehicle is from San Francisco and is still in working order, police contact the owner and give them 20 minutes, or a “reasonable amount of time,” to come claim the vehicle.
If the owner can’t get to the car in time, or they don’t answer their phone, the car is retrieved by Auto Return, the private company that tows all vehicles approved by The City. And that’s when the costs start adding up, with a one-time tow and administrative fee of $238.75 and storage fees as high as $50 a day. Victims of a stolen vehicle can have the $70.50 administrative fee recovered so long as they are a San Francisco resident.
In 2005, legislation proposed by Mayor Gavin Newsom and approved by the Board of Supervisors repealed the part of the administrative code that allowed victims to be refunded for the costs. Supervisor Chris Daly, the lone supervisor to vote against the changes, said he couldn’t stomach that particular fee increase.
“The City was pushing increases in fees at the time, and I understand that,” Daly said. “But there are certain increases to me, like this one, that just stunk a little bit, that after someone gets their car stolen, they have to go through all this.”
The Mayor’s Office also expressed concern that the changes in administrative code are hurting residents.
“Car theft victims don’t deserve to be victimized twice,” said the mayor’s spokesman, Nathan Ballard. “We should study and assess the fairness of this administrative code provision.”
Stolen car only beginning of woes
When Cameron Scott had her car stolen from in front of her home at 25th and Vermont streets on Jan. 28, her financial horror story began.
The 1994 Honda Civic — one of the top models stolen by thieves — was found by police a week later.
The body was already in horrible condition, she said, but when police found it, it was missing its wheels, hood and bumpers. Police left a message on her cell phone, saying she could come claim the car, but it had undergone a “major strip.”
Because she couldn’t get to the car in less than 20 minutes, it was towed and she had to get the car from Auto Return, where hundreds of recovered cars are towed every month. When she called, she was told it would cost $375 to get the car from impound. When she arrived the next day, she saw the condition of the car and learned that the price had gone up for another day of storage; it was now $425.
“I just didn’t want to pay,” Scott said. “I didn’t even know if it was worth getting it back.”
Scott, already frazzled, thought she could get some money out of the car if she sold it for scrap, but the tow company said she couldn’t take the car without paying. She told them she’d just leave it and forget it, but she was told a collections company would harrass her for the money.
The only solution: hand over the title to the car and hope the money made at an auction would pay for all the costs. Scott is still waiting to see if costs will be recouped.
Victim’s costs for theft recovery
In 2005, The City imposed towing and storage fees on cars that were stolen and recovered, making victims pay hundreds of dollars to retrieve their vehicles.
Costs to recover your stolen car:
» $168.25 tow fee
» $70.50 city administrative fee (refundable if stolen)
» $36.75 for the first 24 hours of storage
» $50 for each additional day of storage
» $23.50 to transfer vehicle to a long-term lot
» $42.75 for a “flatbed tow fee” (for cars without wheels)
Auto thefts per year:
Estimated recovery rate by SFPD:
» Approximately 95 percent