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Thieves are using peer-to-peer car rental apps to find their next ride

Jeffrey Warner’s 2011 Subaru Forester was broken into twice before it was stolen in Northeast Washington. The SUV had been listed on Getaround, a popular app known as Airbnb for cars, when thieves took it for a spin in November.

“The police told me they strongly suspected that my vehicle had been targeted because of the Getaround listing,” Warner recalls. “The multiple attempts to steal the vehicle were part of their reasoning.”

In the nation’s capital and in other cities across the country where the popularity of peer-to-peer car rental apps is growing, authorities are increasingly concerned that criminals are exploiting the apps. Just like would-be renters, thieves are scrolling through the online platforms to find nearby vehicles that they know will have the keys inside, law enforcement officials say.

In the District, a recent string of thefts involving vehicles listed on the services prompted the attorney general to issue a warning this month highlighting the risks of using the apps.

“Thieves are able to get around certain security features and have been stealing these cars,” said Ben Wiseman, the director of consumer protection for the D.C. attorney general’s office.

“We are warning consumers, particularly those renting their cars out, that this is happening and that they should be careful using Getaround and any other car-sharing service,” Wiseman said.

The apps give users access to hundreds of vehicles that are available for rent in their own neighborhoods, in cities they are visiting and at airports, usually with greater rental flexibility, lower rates and without the hassle of going through lines at rental counters. Owners can share their cars when they aren’t using them and earn extra money.

Vehicle owners set the ground rules, including daily prices and when their cars are available. The apps can adjust prices on the basis of demand. Vehicles are rented for at least an hour, and hourly rates can range from as low as $5 to as high as $20. Getaround takes 40 percent of the rental revenue, and other companies take fees ranging from 15 percent to 40 percent, depending on the vehicle protections for which the renters have enrolled.

The companies say vehicle owners can make thousands of dollars a year.

But law enforcement and government officials have raised concerns about vulnerabilities in the apps — particularly in Getaround, which makes the general locations of vehicles available to all app users. D.C. officials say most thefts and break-ins in the city have involved vehicles that have been enrolled with Getaround, but there have also been some with the popular app Turo.

There also is a car-sharing app called Avail.

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Here’s how Getaround works: After creating a profile, a user can search for a car by location and type of vehicle desired. After filing a rental request and being approved by the owner, the renter can go to the car’s location and unlock the vehicle using the smartphone app. The car keys are inside the vehicle.

Turo, which also operates in the D.C. area, has a system where generally a renter meets with an owner to get the keys, though in some markets that step is eliminated and users can also use the app to unlock the cars.

Turo spokesman Steve Webb said the company has not seen an increase in safety incidents in the D.C. area or elsewhere where the platform is available. He said fewer than 0.1 percent of trips on the app result in safety claims, including theft and criminal activity.

The companies say thefts and other problems are rare, but authorities say such incidents appear to be on the rise.

In the District, police began to notice an uptick in incidents involving cars listed on Getaround and Turo around October, said D.C. police spokeswoman Kristen Metzger. From Oct. 1 to Feb. 4, police investigated about 90 incidents involving those car-sharing platforms, including car thefts, theft from cars, vandalism and crashes.

Nearly 50 vehicles listed in the car rental apps were reported stolen in that period, about 6 percent of the nearly 800 vehicle thefts in that time.

In some cases, the rented vehicles were used to commit other crimes, authorities and owners said. Some cars have been found abandoned days later or sitting damaged in tow lots. One owner reported that remnants of drugs had been left inside, and another saw signs that the car had been used as a ride-hail vehicle. In at least one case in Washington last month, a car rented via an app allegedly was involved in a homicide, according to a news report.

Owners have complained on social media about the companies’ responses, saying they have failed to take responsibility for the problems. They also highlight the insurance challenges. It remains unclear whether insurance companies are required to cover damage for incidents that occur while the vehicles are being used by renters.

The apps offer varying levels of coverage. Getaround says its insurance covers owners and authorized renters for the duration of rentals. The company says an owner’s personal insurance is responsible for damage or theft that occurs outside a rental period.

D.C. vehicle owners report mixed results, with some claims paid and others denied for loss of or damage to vehicles while they are in renters’ hands. One owner said their insurance company paid for nearly $5,000 of repairs after their vehicle was stolen while listed on the app but then canceled the policy.

Some cities and states are debating regulations that would determine the responsibility of insurance companies, user protections and taxes.

Getaround, which has about 5 million users in more than 300 cities in the United States and Europe, said, “Keeping our owners and their cars safe is our top priority.” The company said it has a team working around the clock every day to prevent and address safety incidents. That work includes screening and monitoring users.

“Every Getaround driver must pass a thorough trust and safety screening to verify their identity and driving record,” company spokeswoman Meg Murray said. “Our process involves 17 points of reference, including both social verification and the department of motor vehicles in each state.”

But concerns have been raised about such screenings after reports that thieves created profiles with fake IDs and stolen credit cards to gain access to cars.

And with Getaround, critics say, potential thieves do not even have to go to the trouble of trying to rent vehicles, because any user can track down active cars through the app. Cars can also be easily spotted on the street by the decals that some owners place on them to make them easier for renters to find. Warner’s car bore the decal.

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Warner said that after his car was broken into twice and then stolen, he sought help from Getaround to offset the cost of repairs, including replacing the broken windows and the keys the thieves took with them after abandoning it. But the company said it wouldn’t pay, he said. His insurance company also refused to cover repairs, because the car was active on the rental service at the time it was stolen.

Warner said he drives sparingly for personal use and used the app to offset the costs of the car payment and insurance. But the three incidents cost him more than $1,000.

“I was very dissatisfied with Getaround’s ability to deal with this and offer customer service,” said Warner, who unlisted the car.

Getaround said the company is taking steps to ensure security is put in place to prevent future break-ins. For example, Murray said, Getaround recently became aware of incidents in some parking garages the company uses and is working with the parking management to improve security.

A security feature allows the company to immobilize a car to prevent it from starting even when a person has possession of the physical car key, Murray said. The cars are also equipped with GPS trackers that allow the company to find the vehicles’ locations, which can aid in theft investigations, she said.

Still, police say users should exercise common sense.

“Residents should take precautions when using car rental applications, including always reading instructions and fine print on these apps,” said Metzger, the police spokeswoman. “MPD advises residents to not leave their keys in their vehicles.”

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