Monday, October 11, 2010

Breaking into cars

It's pathetically inefficient to break into cars. I don't mean always, I mean mostly.

I don't mean only that it's a pain for the person who owns the car; nor do I mean solely that the thief often gets little for her/his trouble. I mean both. And, on a societal level, I mean big-picture: it's an inefficient way to transfer wealth.

This was brought home to me for the Nth time recently, soon after our household acquired a brand new car. Well, brand new to us. As I explained in Elegy for a manual transmission, my partner and I bought a 1991 Subaru wagon with 60,000 miles on it this summer. Those numbers are a decided upgrade, given that our former sedan, an '85 Volvo, was pushing 190K. We don't drive much, it would have been silly to buy a new vehicle.

A few weeks after we bought the Subaru, somebody broke into it and stole the following:

  • a couple bucks in change
  • a few dollar-tokens for the self-service car wash down the road
  • a simple folding knife suitable for picnics

The thief left the plastic-handled corkscrew, the tire pressure gauge, and a dozen or so cassette tapes (yes! people who drive 20 year old cars still have and even occasionally play cassette tapes!). S/he didn't leave a mess. Not even a broken window or a jimmied lock. I suppose the thief was good at picking locks, or had a master key.

The worst part? The ceiling light was left on, so by the time we realized the car had been burglarized the battery was dead. I got a jump start from a neighbor, drove around to build up the battery's charge again, we were good to go. Not a big deal.

When it happened again two weeks later I started to get annoyed.

Worse for the thief, we hadn't restocked. Didn't refill the little compartment thoughtfully provided by the manufacturer for parking meter change. Didn't buy a replacement folding knife. Hadn't been to wash the car in a while. Bottom line, this time the thief walked away with zilch.

But. The burglar left the ceiling light on again, so our battery was dead. Again. This time I took the ungainly thing out of the engine compartment, lugged it up to the apartment, and charged it overnight.

The one-two punch got me thinking. Thinking and counting, actually. Self, I asked myself, how many times has some foolishness like this happened in the course of five used cars and 28 years of lifetime automobile ownership? The answer was six, including the two break-ins this summer:

  1. Hatchback: rear window smashed to steal a half-empty case of 20-50 weight motor oil
  2. Hatchback: hotwired, stolen, crappy stereo ripped out, abandoned, towed
  3. Hatchback: hotwired, stolen for 2nd time in a month, abandoned several blocks away, recovered before the tow trucks swooped in
  4. Sedan: door pried open, crappy stereo ripped out of the dash
  5. Wagon: no-damage entry to steal parking meter change and a folding knife ... battery dead
  6. Wagon: no-damage entry to steal nothing, 'cuz the car was cleaned out by the prior theft two weeks before ... battery dead again

#4 was the weirdest. The door (front, passenger side) was literally pried open, from the top of the frame. Didn't even break a window, the thief just bent the almost-tinfoil frame enough to reach in and unock the door. The owner of a local body shop -- nice guy, big belly and biceps a gym bunny would kill for -- he took one look at my sad little Honda, asked if I had insurance that would cover the damage (negatory), and bent the door back into shape with his bare hands. Sent me packing, wouldn't take a dime for his trouble.

If you've been driving and parking on a city street for any length of time, I'm guessing you have similar stories. Unless the break-in involves smashed windows or broken locks, there's not a lot of expense involved on the car owner's end; but I assure you that smashed window at the top of my little list cost a lot more than half a case of motor oil. That was a little crazy-making. An inefficient way to transfer wealth, as I was saying.

Mostly what the car owner is in for is a waste of time. The thief gets a few bucks, maybe.

I have neighbors who leave their cars unlocked to avoid the smashed windows & locks routine. Sometimes the vehicles get slept in and they end up with stinky car syndrome, but they're not out the cost of a window each time somebody gets a hankering for parking change or the five bucks a fence will fork over for the rare car stereo that isn't factory-installed (the ones that come built into your dashboard are pretty much unfencable).

Small apartment buildings in my part of town tend not to have enclosed parking facilities. Even most of the single family homes around here lack garages.

Car alarms? Please. That's just a way to guarantee your neighbors want to hurt you.

Round the clock armed vigils? That would be, um, disproportionate.

I have to say, if there were a way I could bribe these wee-hours thieves, modestly, to leave my car alone ... only I can't think how without inciting mass bribery-cheating. Is that a real concept? The immorality of taking protection money when you weren't going to do anything naughty in the first place?

In a world in which cars are parked on the street, and the best legal options for some people to get what they need involve standing outside a supermarket all day to sell a dozen newspapers for a dollar each ... well, somebody's bound to figure it's worth their while to nick a few quarts of motor oil or a small handful of coins out of a parked car.

Thanks to Twanda Baker for the arty Flickr photo of a common misfortune...


  1. I assume your old VW Bus faired better. Perhaps, the times are changing.

  2. Hmmmm...a mystery anonymous poster who has known me since I had my first vehicle. I don't recall that my VW bus was ever burglarized. But neither was my most recent car, a Volvo sedan owned for nearly ten years, throughout the 'oughts. Go figure.

  3. Speaking of inefficient burglary, I once experienced a spate of break-ins at the forest service cabin I own up in the Sierras. A window was broken once, another time a door shutter was dismantled. It became clear that all they were interested in was the beer in the fridge, though a straw sunhat was also missing. The boom box remained, as did the books, cans of beans and lots of CDs.

    My clever strategy after this was to take the beer out of the fridge whenever I left and to put it right outside the door. In case the beer was taken, I wrote on the outside of the shutter door "NO BEER IN HERE".

    I haven't had any break-ins since, although no one did ever take advantage of the free beer. I came back to find the bottles, shattered by freezing temperatures, neatly packed in the six pack carton and still capped.

  4. Great story, Bill. You think it would work if I scattered quarters on the hood of our Subaru wagon, and put up one of those windshield sun shades with "No parking change in here!" scrawled on it?

  5. Sadly enough, it might.

    So, I keep a really messy car. (And yes, I mean shamefully messy.) It's been broken into twice. On both occasions, I had just emptied and cleaned it.

    The first time, the 10 year old factory made tape deck was partially removed, but the thief thoughtfully attempted to reinstall it after thinking the situation through. The second time, some change was taken from the cigarette tray, but the back window was broken.

    Generally speaking, there are any number of items in the car worth stealing beyond a crappy casette deck and pocket change, and yet, a reasonable degree of disorganization seems to go a long way...

    With that said, my tactics garner a fair degree of grief from family and friends. Nonetheless, given my neighborhood, I feel it's worth the investment. ;^)