The vehicle had disappeared without a trace weeks earlier.
Sharky Laguana — owner of a San Francisco business that rents out Mercedes-Benz vans — figured he’d never be able to track down his stolen property. As luck would have it, he didn’t need to.
Driving back to work after a dental appointment one afternoon in February, Laguana’s missing $60,000 van pulled up right beside him.
The shocked businessman found himself in a precarious position. He could confront the occupants of the van or call the police for help. Laguana chose the latter as he followed the van across town. But Laguana said he soon found himself in an even more frustrating situation.
“The police said they weren’t going to investigate and they wouldn’t even accompany us to try and get the vehicle back — even though we knew exactly where it was located,” he said. The police told him that it was a civil matter, one that they could only investigate after the paperwork was filed. It would’ve been easier, Laguana thought, if he could have activated his van’s GPS technology once the vehicle wasn’t returned on time, he said.
The use of GPS to track stolen vehicles is at the center of a debate between car rental companies and privacy advocates in California. Most rental cars are equipped with navigation and GPS technology. But unlike automakers that can begin tracking their customer’s movements as soon as they drive off the lot, California law bars rental companies from tracking their customer’s location until the vehicle has been missing at least five days past its return date.
Some car rental companies want to decrease the number of days significantly, making it possible to track the movements of customers who failed to return vehicles on time. Meanwhile, privacy advocates worry that allowing companies to track customers — even if only after they’ve failed to return a rental vehicle — could open the door to privacy abuses, such as collecting and selling valuable consumer data.
But rental company owners like Laguana say the law has encouraged a rash of thefts over the past few years as car thieves realize they can “rent” a vehicle with a five-day head start on police. In many cases, the thieves simply made a rental reservation online before using a counterfeit driver’s license and stolen credit card to swipe at a rental vehicle. Within hours, a fairly new car can end up in a chop shop across town or be en route to a nearby port to be shipped elsewhere in the world, according to police. Laguana said his vans have ended up in Chad and Saudi Arabia.
State law treats missing rental vehicles a “contractual dispute” between the rental companies and their customers.
“It is ironic in this day and age — with how much access to how much information that everyone else has — that we aren’t able to access that data, even when you’re in breach of a rental contract,” Laguana said.
“Do we allow you to stay in a hotel room for five days before we kick you out?” he added. “There’s no other area in commerce that’s so generous to the person in breach.”
Vehicles that aren’t stripped for parts or shipped abroad are often used to commit other crimes, experts say, giving criminals an untraceable form of transport.
In New York City last year, a 29-year-old man driving a Home Depot rental truck turned the vehicle into a weapon of terror, using the vehicle to mow down unsuspecting pedestrians on a Manhattan bike path. The carnage left eight people dead and 11 injured.
The ease of stealing rental vehicles may explain why there were more than 92,000 rental cars thefts across the United States between 2015 and 2018, with nearly 18,000 of those thefts occurring in California, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. California remains a leading state for car theft alongside Nevada and Washington State, according to the NCIB.
In recent years, both New York and San Francisco have a seen a rash of stolen Zipcars, the car-sharing company owned by Avis Budget Group. Thieves target upscale models, going as far as creating fake cards to access the vehicles and posing as company representatives, according to the New York Post.
But privacy advocates such as state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) say the rental industry hasn’t provided data proving that enough thieves are posing as customers to warrant a change in existing laws, such as allowing companies to track the location of overdue rental vehicles.
“There really isn’t at this point sufficient evidence that these scenarios exist enough to outweigh the privacy concerns of good customers who follow the rules,” she said. “It’s really critical we take concrete steps to protect consumer privacy and at the same time we can address legitimate and demonstrable problems.”
Jackson said she’s willing to negotiate legislation that would lower the number of days a rental company must wait before attempting to recover a vehicle, but “sometimes,” she said, “these bigger industries are used to getting their way.”
After following his stolen vehicle through San Francisco and realizing police weren’t going to help him recover his property, Laguana made the bold decision to approach the van with one of his employees. When the vehicle was finally parked, the two men approached the driver, asked her to roll down the window, and told the woman he’d just filed a stolen vehicle report with the police.
It was a lie, but Laguana felt like he had no choice. He told the driver that if she turned over the keys at that moment, he would forget the incident had occurred, prompting the woman and another person in the vehicle to hand over the keys and exit the van.
“No one should have to go through the frustrating, even dangerous experience that Mr. Laguana did to recover his or her property,” said state Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco). “On his own, he found his stolen van and wasn’t allowed to repossess it. We are committed to making it easier for rental car companies to recover their own vehicles as quickly as possible.”
Ting is working on a bill that may include language that would reduce the number of days a rental company has to wait to report a vehicle embezzled from five to three. But Laguana said he expects that any effort to change the law will lead to opposition from privacy advocates who fear that rental car companies will begin tracking customers and misusing their data.
Laguana thinks being able to text late customers might provide a compromise for both rental car companies and privacy advocates.
“I should be able to text somebody when they’re more than an hour late,” he said. “There really isn’t a reason for you to be multiple days late without us being in communication.”