When the thief takes your wheels

Car theft is so common that it is often not taken seriously, writes Meg Carter

Car theft is one of Britain's most common crimes. Home Office figures show that 580,903 vehicles were stolen in England and Wales in 1995, of which 63 per cent were recovered. But because it has become so commonplace, it is often seen as an unimportant crime. Dealing with the after-effects of having a car stolen can feel like playing the lottery.

You may think you're in luck if your stolen car's been found by the police, but that's likely to be just the start of it. The six-to-eight-week odyssey between theft and insurance pay-out can be fraught with problems, ranging from the car disappearing again before you set eyes on it, to protracted haggling with the insurer.

For a start, different police forces respond in different ways. In London, for example, stolen vehicles recovered by the police are automatically removed by private contractors and taken to a private compound, costing the car owner an average pounds 95 + VAT. In contrast, Thames Valley Police will either recover the car and take it to a nearby garage (cost varies according to the time), or leave it where it was found, for the owner to collect.

Take the case of Martin Reeves, 30, a London-based management consultant. His car, a second-hand Mazda MX5, was recently stolen in London and recovered by a neighbouring police force two days later. Between confirming that the car was his and collecting it - a matter of hours - the car was stolen again.

Trouble is, when you report your car stolen, you don't know whether, let alone where, it may turn up. While the local force dealing with the reported crime is obliged to ask how you would like to arrange recovery, this information is not automatically circulated nationally.

Nor is there a standard approach to processing car claims amongst insurers - or even an industry-wide approach to estimating replacement value of stolen cars, although most insurers go by the trade bibles Glass's and Parker's, which detail prices based on forecourt sales revenue.

According to Malcolm Tarling, of the Association of British Insurers, "the only time-frame insurance companies have in common is `as soon as possible'." Insurers wait anything between four and eight weeks before processing a claim when a car has not reappeared. Despite claims by some that insurers make an unrealistically low initial offer, Tarling insists standard policy is to make realistic offers based on the on-the-road replacement value of the car the day before it was stolen.

"If your car is stolen shortly after having new tyres or any other modifications that may increase its value, tell the insurer," he advises. "They won't know unless you say." Around one in 75 claims is disputed. If you disagree with the figure offered, challenge it, he says. "Start with the branch office, then senior management at head office. Failing that, you can go to the Insurance Ombudsman."

Last year, the Insurance Ombudsman considered 796 disputes concerning motor insurance policies; 202 of these related to the value of the car. Typically, around two-thirds are settled in the insurer's favour. If the motorist wins, the ombudsman usually awards interest in their favour, as well.

"Most policies say they'll pay no more than the market value of the car immediately before its loss, but most motorists believe their cars are worth more than they really are," says Michael Lovegrove, a spokesman. Should a driver believe he or she is being treated unfairly, they should supply evidence to support their claim - current ads for other cars of the same age and mileage, for example.

"If repairs are required, a distinction should be drawn between the insurer's appointed repairer and the repairer a motorist chooses," Lovegrove adds. Most insurers specify a preferred garage, and not obliged to sort out poor work done by another repairer.

When Alan Fowler, a retired chartered engineer from Surrey, had his stolen Morris Traveller recovered with an over-heated engine and melted plug- leads, the insurer advised him to have it fixed by its recommended repairer - who advised replacing the engine - and offered pounds 150 towards the pounds 600 replacement cost. Mr Fowler challenged this.

"The insurer's repairer was not a Morris specialist," he explains. "At the very least, I wanted a second opinion." Eventually the job was done by his preferred repairer, an authorised specialist who concluded that a new engine was unnecessary. The final cost of the work was only pounds 150.

Replacement car hire is another prickly area, says Rebecca Hadley, of the Automobile Association. "If a car has been in an accident, there's always a chance that damages can be claimed from the other party." This is not the case if a car has been stolen. "The majority of insurers don't provide cover for car hire beyond a couple of days. It's a cost you must bear, or pay an additional premium to offset."

Battle through all this, and you'll be lucky to get change out of pounds 2,000. Home Office research shows that even when a stolen car is fully insured, its non-return costs the owner an average of pounds 2,190.

You will then need to guard against its happening again. The RAC and AA endorse a number of products, and insurance premium incentives are available.

While it won't stop your car being stolen, Tracker, a hidden bugging device, does help police find it - the company claims a 90 per cent recovery rate. Other devices include immobiliser systems such as those from VECTA, which can be combined with alarms, and even crook locks - a much-maligned yet useful form of protection against the casual thief.

When buying security devices, check if they are "Thatcham approved". Thatcham is the Motor Insurance Research Centre in Thatcham, Berkshire, which is sponsored by the ABI.

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