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Rental car break-ins are trending — Here's how to protect yourself

July 31, 2021
8 min read
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If you're planning to drive to visit San Francisco’s popular tourist sites including Fisherman’s Wharf right now, be aware that someone might just be fishing for you (or, at least, for your things).

Car break-ins and thefts from vehicles around Fisherman’s Wharf and Chinatown have become so common this year that visitors are being warned not to leave valuables in their cars as they set off to enjoy the area, according to a June 8 story in the San Francisco Examiner.

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Local news and weather station KRON4 reported May 2021 data from the San Francisco Police department showing a 750 percent increase in thefts from vehicles parked in spots like Fisherman’s Wharf and Chinatown (compared to the same period in 2020).

Other popular tourist areas like North Beach and Union Square are also seeing an uptick in car break-ins, even while those statistics remain low elsewhere in the city.

"It’s a massive problem in San Francisco,” said Jonathan Weinberg, founder and CEO of AutoSlash, a website that helps consumers land deals on car rentals. “It was a tremendous problem in 2019 and quieted down in 2020 with lockdowns, but is up again this year."

Related: How to never pay full price for a rental car

“We aren’t seeing quite as bad problems in other parts of the country, but renters in San Francisco want to be especially careful,” he said.

Wondering how to help steer would-be thieves clear of your rental car?

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It’s a good time for a reminder with these basic tips that apply when parking your personal car somewhere new, too.

Avoid parking in remote or poorly-lit areas, even in parking garages

Now is not the moment to try to save a few pennies on parking while potentially increasing the chances of a break-in.

If you’re parking on the street, look for spots in busy areas with lots of foot traffic, says Weinberg.

“It’s a defensive measure because thieves are less likely to break in there,” he said.

And just because you’ve parked in a parking lot or parking garage with a secure entrance, there are rules to keep in mind when choosing a parking spot there, too.

Related: Don’t gamble on your safety: Advice for staying safe in Las Vegas and a cautionary tale

“Avoid parking in remote or poorly-lit areas, which include dark corners of parking garages and streets where the lights might be out or not a lot of people around,” Weinberg said.

(Photo by Fahroni /

Don’t forget the golden rule

This is another obvious tip that can’t be repeated enough, especially when parking in heavily-touristed areas like Fisherman’s Wharf, where thieves are more likely to be on the lookout for easy targets.

Always keep valuables out of sight — or, better yet, out of your car completely, although we know that's not always possible.

“A bag in the back seat is a tempting target," Weinberg said.

If you're driving a regular sedan, stash everything in the closed trunk to keep it completely out of sight, otherwise push it under the seat or under a jacket, he says.

Related: 11 common rental car mistakes — and how to avoid them

That's no guarantee, of course, that a thief won’t try to break into your car. But that old adage of out of sight being out of mind has some truth to it here.

If you’re just leaving your car for some brief sightseeing, weigh your options, too — it might be better to carry your laptop in a backpack along with you instead of leaving it in a potentially vulnerable position in the car.

If you can't stand to lose it, in other words, consider carrying it with you.

After you’ve parked, double-check that the doors are all locked and all windows are rolled up, too.

It’s never worth leaving windows a crack open to keep things cooler inside, Weinberg said, as that’s just an open invitation to thieves looking to jimmy a lock.

Consider the outward signs on your car that indicate you’re a tourist

Rental car companies rarely slap cars with their stickers these days (although there are countries where you’ll still see it from some companies — Iceland comes to mind) but there are other outward signs on cars that thieves look for when determining if a vehicle is being driven by a visitor (and potentially packed with things worth robbing).

“Tennessee license plates are a break-in sign to a thief in San Francisco,” Weinberg said. “It’s a cheaper place to register a car, so a lot of rental cars have Tennessee or other out-of-state plates.”

If a rental car company gives you a car with plates from a state other than the one you're in, he said, you can always try requesting another vehicle.

“If you’re in California, try to get California plates to blend in,” he said.

Renting through a company like Turo, which uses a platform similar to Airbnb whereby you rent directly from car owners, almost guarantees you’ll have a car with local license plates.

Related: Renting a car in Hawaii with Turo during rental ‘apocalypse’

“We avoid identifying our host's cars as car-sharing vehicles (via Turo stickers, etc.) to help prevent car rental break-ins,” Turo said in an email statement to TPG.

What to do if your rental car gets broken into

Say you take all the measures and still come back to your rental car to see a gaping window and glass shards all around.

The first thing to do, Weinberg said, is to take photos of the exterior and interior, documenting any place there's damage.

“Use the notes feature from your smartphone to note anything that’s missing or stolen from the car,” he said.

Be sure to photograph damage to the car from the break-in, which might include ripped seats or damage to the exterior paint and interior surfaces caused by the glass shards.

Next, it’s important to call the local police station to file a police report, as it’s the first thing the car rental company will ask you for (and also required for filing an insurance claim).

“Some places will send a car over to file the report on the spot, and other places you'll have to take a cab to the police department,” Weinberg said.

Get your insurance involved when a car break-in occurs

Once you’ve filed the report, have your police report number handy and call the rental car company, using the local office number on your contract, to let them know what happened.

"If you've taken out insurance from the rental car company, you can file a claim directly with them,” Weinberg said. “Typically, any policy with collision damage also covers theft. And that applies to stealing the car completely, damage called by an accident or damage caused by theft.”

And while damage to the car will be covered, he said, it doesn’t extend to stolen items inside.

Your credit card and personal insurance also cover you for theft, he said.

Related: Best credit cards for rental car coverage

The best travel rewards cards offer coverage that lets you skip the car rental company’s collision damage waiver (CDW).

But be aware that there might be a requirement to notify them of the incident in a timely manner, said Weinberg.

“It could be 24 hours from the incident or a week,” he said. Whatever you do, don’t stall. Get on that quickly to make sure your claim isn't denied.

If none of your credit cards offer primary car rental loss/damage insurance but you're already an AmEx cardholder, consider adding American Express Premium Car Rental Protection to your current American Express credit card for between $12.25 and $24.95 per rental. This is a good option to consider if you're renting vehicles that can be difficult to insure, like vans and pick-up trucks, as coverage extends to them -- as well as rentals of up to 42 consecutive days — too.

When it comes to recuperating the cost of any personal effects that might have been stolen from your car, Weinberg said, that is far tricker than getting damages covered.

But it’s always worth checking your homeowner's insurance policy, he said, to check if it covers items stolen from your car. You might end up with a silver lining, and you won’t know unless you try.

Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.