S.F. stolen cars held for ransom

If you own one of the 17 vehicles that are stolen in San Francisco on an average day (6,337 in 2007) you can expect both good news and bad news from city officials. The good news is your car will probably be found, because the Police Department recovers an impressive 95 percent of stolen vehicles.

Of course, your automobile might well have been stripped of parts or badly battered before being abandoned on the street. But the true bad news is that it could easily cost you hundreds of dollars if you actually want your vehicle returned.

Amazingly, the meter starts running if you do not arrive to reclaim your car within 20 minutes of receiving the police notification call or within what the San Francisco Police Department’s general orders calls a “reasonable amount of time.”

If you miss the The City’s deadline to reclaim your car, you will owe $238.75 in towing fees to Auto-Return, the contractor that tows all vehicles for The City. And your daily storage fee might be as high as $50.

This legalized gouging of auto-theft victims commenced in 2005, when The City was short of money and increased fees. Legislation proposed by Mayor Gavin Newsom and approved by the Board of Supervisors repealed an administrative code provision that had let victims obtain refunds for their

towing/storage costs. As a slight sop to the feelings of traumatized stolen-vehicle owners who vote in city elections, San Francisco residents can have their $70.50 administrative fees returned.

With some 22,000 autos stolen since recovery fees were imposed, an understandably high level of public resentment has developed and City Hall might be starting to have second thoughts. “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.”

The reassessment shouldn’t require complicated research. Stolen-car recovery fees are particularly onerous to lower-income victims who own older, inexpensive cars that accumulate dents and scrapes from everyday street parking.

It makes little sense for this type of owner to pay $400 for retrieving a banged-up auto with a Blue Book value of $150. If they simply abandon the car at AutoReturn, they will be dunned by a collection agency. The only legal option is to sign over the car title and hope their “debt” is fully repaid when the vehicle is auctioned for scrap.

Though it is unrealistic toexpect The City to absorb the expenses of returning stolen cars to their owners, the present fees are bloated and should be reduced. And 24 hours would be much fairer as the deadline for victims to retrieve their vehicles before the costs begin.

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