Sunday, February 20, 2011

My car was SWP (stolen while parked)!

Filed Under: Transport, Road Transport, Crime, Robbery and theft

THE FEELING is indescribable, surreal. There’s an ice-cold ball in the pit of your stomach. Your mouth is dry. You wish you were just in the middle of a bad dream. Everyone around you has a ghastly look on their faces.

This is how it is during the first moments when you realize that your car has been stolen. All you can mutter is, my car was just here and now it’s gone!

On Dec. 28, 2002, I went to a friend’s house on Malakas St. in Diliman, Quezon City for a Christmas holiday lunch. I parked my one-and-a-half year-old Honda Civic on the street, unaware that I was in the “carnap capital” of the Philippines. Emerging from the gathering an hour later, I found my car gone.
I can say that after that experience, I became an expert on the subject of carnapping. I even wrote a three-part series on the what, where, why and how of it (Inquirer, April 25-27, 2003). Researching and writing the series was cathartic. It gave meaning to my ordeal. I valiantly told myself that I was not just a victim but one of the chosen meant to spread the bad news about the evil that was stalking the land.
What factors make Quezon City the car theft capital of the Philippines? Where in Quezon City is your car most likely to get stolen (circa 2002)? Where might you find “chopped up” parts of your stolen car being sold as “original?” How does a stolen car get resurrected and acquire a new identity? Has a car thief ever been convicted and sent to prison? These were some of the questions I answered in that series. Let me reprise the answers a bit:

So you’ve just lost your car to thieves. Here are the steps one should take immediately, steps I went through myself. A word of advice: go about the task serenely and put yourself in a state of equanimity. Bear in mind that it’s only a car that you lost, not your limbs, not your life.

1. If your car was stolen while parked (SWP) or forcibly taken (FT), report the incident immediately to the police precinct in the area where it happened. Bring your original registration papers which you keep at home or in your bag. (Never keep original copies in your car.) You will then be asked to write a complaint sheet, after which you will be issued a certification. That is not the end of it.

2. I was then made to proceed to the defunct Task Force Limbas of the Traffic Management Group (TMG) in Camp Crame to present the complaint sheet and certification. I was issued an alarm sheet containing the circumstances pertaining to my loss. I was told that the police was also going to send out an alarm to various regions. At that time, Task Force Limbas was the group assigned to combat car theft, hijacking and highway robbery.

3. The Philippine National Police’s TMG issues the certificate of non-recovery (for insurance claims) after 90 days at the most. To get this you have to submit clear machine copies of the complaint and alarm sheets mentioned earlier, plus identification document and picture. There’s a lot of paper work, I promise you.

Call it a privilege for journalists or what, but I did not have to wait 90 days. The head of TMG himself asked me if I needed my certificate of non-recovery even before the 90 days were up. (I was then doing research for my series on car theft and he was among those I interviewed.) I needed a car replacement right away and TMG’s top gun took pity on me. It helped that I did not look like I stole my own car or had it stolen to claim the insurance money. I had an Inquirer news story on the Metro page to show for it. In fact, I was one of two journalists who lost a car that day, both in Quezon City, the news reports said.

4. Be ready for more paper work for insurance claims. From the branch of the Land Tranportation Office (LTO) where your vehicle was originally registered, get clear and authenticated copies of the following: vehicle sales invoice, LTO confirmation certificate, LTO motor vehicle report showing the stencil of the motor and chassis numbers, PNO motor vehicle clearance certificate, and other proofs of ownership.

5. Read your insurance policy. Some insurance companies have add-ons in fine print which are in their favor. For example, if the vehicle was destroyed because of acts of terrorism or acts of God, the insurance company does not pay. Also, insurance companies do not always explain that the amount the car is insured for is not always what the claimant will get.

So if your car is insured for so much starting January 1 and it was stolen on December 31 of the same year, chances are the insurance company will slap some 12 months-worth of car depreciation and deduct from whatever you thought you could claim.

I argued with the insurance guys and said that it shouldn’t be that way because cars are insured yearly, not monthly. I argued well and they paid. I bought a new car immediately, my way of putting the trauma behind me.

There are many ways to lose a car as there are many ways to die by murder. The most common, as police blotters show, is SWP. This can happen in open public places, guarded parking lots, around churches, hospitals, restaurants, in front of homes.

Vehicles are also taken from inside people’s homes. Car thieves break in, open the gate and drive off with the vehicle. Or cars are taken from malls despite security guards supposedly patrolling the pay parking lots.

This from a police report: A family goes to a mall and parks the van in the guarded pay-parking lot. Several hours of shopping later, the family finds the van gone. Mall management says it takes no responsibility for stolen parked cars and please, the car owners are told, next time read the fine print on the parking stub.

Or vehicles can be forcibly taken (FT). According to a police report, a doctor left his home very early in the morning, for an emergency call perhaps, and was stopped by armed men. At gunpoint, his car was taken from him right at his gate.

When rent-a-car operators lose a vehicle to car renters, the case is listed under “failed to return” or FTR. The last one could fall under qualified theft. Used car dealers are favorite targets these days.

Cars dozing in the home garage are not 100 percent safe. A couple living on Malakas Street in Quezon City heard sounds coming from their driveway one night. When they peeped through the window, they saw their Pajero quietly moving out of their gate. When the Pajero reached the road, the wheel must have locked and the car refused to move. The carnappers fled under cover of darkness.

The number of vehicles stolen while parked is higher than those forcibly taken. While poking a gun could produce faster results, stealing a parked car could be easier if one knows how. Car thieves have fine-tuned the operation so that all it takes is a click, a kick and a snip, if no one is watching. Given a little more time, they can disable the anti-theft alarm system.

Those who steal parked cars are a varied lot. Most of them do not have firearms, only tools for opening and starting the vehicle. This way, if they are caught in the act, they could say they were only stealing valuables and would be charged only with petty theft.

Those who do SWP – the ones who run the errands and deliver the goods – are the small fry. It is the big fish who attend to the makeover, acquisition of new registration papers and eventual sale of the stolen property, either as a new (resurrected) car, or in pieces, a.k.a., “chop-chop.” They have the connections.

Organized gangs of car thieves maintain garages where the stolen MVs (motor vehicles) are brought. Years ago, a big place in posh Ayala-Alabang was discovered to be the “parking lot” of stolen vehicles.

But these MVs are not kept for long under a blanket. If the stolen MV, say a Honda CRV, is an “order” – yes, there are orders – it is brought right away to a place for the make-over.

Stolen MVs, more often than not, reach their intended destinations before the so-called nationwide alert is issued. Despite the archipelagic nature of the Philippines, which requires island-hopping, many stolen MVs leave Metro Manila for the provinces without much hassle.

There have been stories about middle-income island provinces suddenly awash in second-hand cars with spanking new looks. The more expensive top-of-the line sport utility vehicles (SUV) need not go far but, some police sources reveal, some of these vehicles were taken to as far as Indonesia, via the back door some years back.

Anti-car theft officials have bemoaned the scrapping of the clearance for interisland travel or transport of MVs. Clearance is a deterrent to car theft, but this has been a hassle for motorists who do interisland travel on wheels.

I don’t know if insurance companies still sell total wrecks along with these wrecked vehicles’ papers. The buyers are not interested in the junk but in the junk’s papers and serialized parts. These wrecks will be resurrected in the body of a stolen MV, most likely an “order” from a client.

Stolen MVs will assume the identities of the wrecks in the same way that fugitives take on the identities of dead persons, preferably unknowns.

But this type of operation is deliberate and needs a lot of planning. It is not worth it if the vehicle to be brought back to life is not top-of-the-line.
The anti-fencing law (PD 1612) and anti-car theft law (RA 6539) are supposed to curb carnapping and prevent the sale of stolen motor vehicles. The bad news is that despite these laws, hardly anyone has been convicted and jailed for car theft.

Police superintendent Alberto M. Taguiam Jr., chief of the Traffic Management Group’s legal division, said that for a car thief to get convicted, the victim has to fully cooperate or file a complaint.

There have to be witnesses, with the car thief preferably caught in the act. Mere possession of a stolen vehicle does not constitute car theft. The suspect can instead be charged with violating the anti-fencing law, a lesser offense.

Sadly enough, as recent cases have shown, criminals have gotten more creative every day. The recent targets: Used car dealers who are victims of FTR (failed to return). Criminals pose as can’t-do-any-harm prospective buyers who even have children tagging along with them. And worse, they take the dealers along for the test drive and murder them, as have happened to victims Emerson Lozano and Venson Evangelista.

Without the connivance of bad elements in government agencies, car thieves cannot thrive and indulge in this lucrative criminal activity. Stolen vehicles can become cash only if they go through “legal” processing in government agencies and if government functionaries and law enforcers perform shut-eye operations. •

Eight ways to keep your vehicle safe from carnappers

Sunday Inquirer Magazine
First Posted 15:27:00 02/19/2011

Filed Under: Crime, Robbery and theft, Transport, Road Transport, Safety of Citizens, Security (general)
CAR thieves who steal vehicles while they’re parked are experts in opening car doors, dismantling anti-theft gadgets and even disabling the alarm system. That anti-theft gadget hooked on the steering wheel and the break pedal is easy to unhinge, says one anti-car theft expert. “One good kick and it comes off.”
1. In the absence of an alarm system, the expert suggests the metal bar that is placed across the steering wheel. It can’t be kicked and locks the wheel more securely. It’s no match against a gun, of course.
2, While keeping a copy of the OR-CR (official receipt-car registration) in the car is necessary for police checks, it is better to keep this in one’s wallet or bag. Why? If car thieves find a copy of the car’s OR-CR in your car, they’d know right away who the owner is. If they see that your car’s registration renewal is up soon, they could have someone pose as the car owner, register the motor vehicle under the owner’s name in another place and request for a new car plate number. The car’s color could even be changed.
3. Beware of valet parking. One should also avoid leaving the car key with valet parking attendants. If you have to, leave the duplicate, not the main key that can open the trunk. The key could go to the wrong hands and be duplicated, and the car marked as easy prey.
4. Through the car plate number, the car owner’s name and address can easily be found at the LTO records and the owner’s whereabouts tracked. Car thieves also go to parking lots, park their decrepit car, pick up someone else’s car and drive away with it. Guards don’t always read the plate number written on the parking stub to see if the car being driven out is the right one. Car thieves would have more difficulty with parking that uses digital cards.
5. Read the fine print on parking stubs. Mall and parking lot owners say they are not responsible for losses. One should always turn on the alarm system or secure the wheel with an anti-theft gadget.
6. Most paid parking places have warnings for drivers not to stay inside the car while waiting. The same applies when parked in public places. Inside paid parking areas, car thieves could still take the car and parking stub at gun point.
7. If a suspicious vehicle is trailing you, drive fast to the nearest police outpost or to a place that you think is safe. And if a gun is pointed at you, give up the car. Your life is more important.
8. Before going out of your gate and when coming in especially at night, look around for suspicious characters near your gate. They could take your car at gun point and worse, ask you to open your home to them.
From interviews by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo