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Lessons Learned After Break-in

While this happened to me last week in San Francisco and not in Europe, I think the tips are still valuable for all travel. Long story short, my wife and I flew into SFO, rented a car, drove to a scenic spot to have lunch, and upon returning to the car found the back window smashed and both my bags gone. Fortunately one of my bags (the one with almost all my clothes) the next day but my backpack never turned up. So here's my tips:

1 - Drop your stuff off at your hotel/BNB before heading out to do anything else. Especially if you're going to a spot with lots of tourists as the criminals know that this is where the goods are.

2 - If you're traveling with someone, put some of your clothes in each other's bags. We did this in Europe but unfortunately didn't think it was something we needed to do just an hour up the road, but we were wrong. I was left with just the clothes on my back and we had to waste the next day of our trip shopping for clothes instead of having fun.

3 - Packing cubes save the day! I had everything in packing cubes and I think that is a big reason I got so much back. Initially someone found my socks & underwear bag and turned them into the police who reunited them with me. Then the good Samaritan (thanks Tony!) who found my bag was easily able to find my bags/cubes of everything else nearby. Had this not been the case I'm not sure if I'd have been as lucky.

All in all a bad situation wasn't horrible and I'm thankful for the lessons learned. Once we were past that we had a great time and truly believe that the best way to get over a rough time is to listen to our Uncle Rick and keep on Travelin'!

Posted by
6539 posts

Can I ask where this happened exactly (what spot)? I often toy with whether its best to drop off stuff at the hotel before going elsewhere but often end up not doing it because it's out of the way or if I know the hotel won't let me check in early. Was there anything about the rental car that screamed "rental car!"? I try not to get out-of-state plate rental cars or cars with the Enterprise sticker, etc that identify me as a tourist. Other than that, I don't know what else can flag certain cars to be targeted other than leaving some things in view. There are lots of "tourist spots" which are visited as much by locals so there must be something about the location, lighting, whatever that makes it an easy target.

Thanks for your well-written tips - I'll definitely be a little more apt to drop stuff off first.

Posted by
7671 posts

Car break ins are a huge problem in SF. Doesn't matter where in SF, doesn't matter if it's a rental or not, it happens everywhere and has increased at an alarming rate in the last year or two. It has been in the local news quite a bit. As well as much worse things... a Btitish tourist in a good area was mugged, he resisted, was stabbed, spent 5 weeks in ICU, then died last week. You have to be very careful, very alert and very street-smart in SF or any US city.

Posted by
630 posts

Kyle, sorry this happened to you. Thanks for sharing your story which may in turn help others.

My husband had his rental car broken into when he was in Arizona and his briefcase was stolen. The car was parked directly in front of the hotel lobby too. The passenger-side window was smashed. The police told us it takes only a few seconds for someone to break car glass with a simple tool. The police recommended we store our belongings in the trunk where it is much more difficult to break into.

So, your suggestion to bring belongings to the hotel/apartment before we head out is a great suggestion. If for some reason that is not possible, it may be best to place the belongings in the trunk.

I actually do this here at home too. If I am out shopping, I now place my items in the trunk if I plan to do more shopping.

Posted by
6539 posts

I assume it as "a given" that all your things were in the trunk, correct? Pilgrim's comment above made me wonder. If all your things are out of view and there are no characteristics that can identify your car (or you) as tourists, there's not much more you could have done (except to not carry anything of value with you, of course, or have it stored anywhere in the car). If I'm ever touring someplace, I even hide the tourist maps and books from the front seats and leave no trail. In my local area, I leave everything in the trunk at all times as a habit.

Posted by
7671 posts

Unfortunately, often times (here anyway) leaving things only in the trunk doesn't help because accessing the trunk via a back seat is very easy with many cars and the thieves know it.

Posted by
5624 posts

Unfortunately tourist rental cars must have bulls eye targets on them saying come rob me.

http://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/nevius/article/San-Francisco-tourists-plagued-by-auto-burglaries-6494486.php

Car break-ins are epidemic in San Francisco. But you knew that just
from walking the street and seeing the glitter of shattered windows at
your feet. Supervisor Julie Christensen says with Chinatown,
Fisherman’s Wharf and North Beach, her District Three is ground zero
for smash-and-grab.

Posted by
6539 posts

The above article has a paywall associated with it - does it actually list any useful tips for not becoming a target? Or does it just report recent trends?

Posted by
7671 posts

sfgate.com/news/article/Jump-in-S-F-car-break-ins-prompts-frustration-6446750.php

sfexaminer.com/data-shows-5-year-high-in-car-break-ins/

nbcbayarea.com/investigations/Car-Burglaries-Hit-Epidemic-Levels-Across-the-Bay-Area-344920362.html

Posted by
1536 posts

In the years when I drove a Vespa here in the Bay Area the glove/storage box would get broken into so often that I got in the habit of leaving the door open when I parked it at BART stations or large parking lots generally.

Posted by
518 posts

San Francisco? Try Oakland, you might as well pave entire streets with shattered glass, what with all the daily/nightly vehicle break-in's. I'm speaking mainly of downtown areas. All good suggestions, keeping things in the trunk, dropping things off at the hotel. Some people even leave the glove box empty and OPEN and the center console/arm rest storage areas empty and OPEN, so that any thief can see there really is nothing to steal from the car. It's a hassle of course, to take everything and dump it in the trunk every time you park. But most cars have a lock for the trunk release lever (you have to use the ignition key to lock/unlock it). While it's true "any lock can be broken or picked," it's all about inconvenience and time....the more hoops the thief needs to jump through the more likely he'll move on to the next target.

Posted by
102 posts

I live in San Francisco and unfortunately I often see car windows smashed in with stuff strewn all over the sidewalk, and the cars almost always have out of state plates. This is especially common in the Tenderloin and Union Square neighborhoods, where a lot of the budget hotels and hostels are.

The past year or so, car break ins have skyrocketed. Many police officials have blamed the rise in property crimes on Proposition 47, which reduced nonviolent property and drug crimes to misdemeanors. State voters approved the measure in November 2014. Details: http://www.sfgate.com/crime/article/Car-break-ins-fuel-spike-in-S-F-property-crimes-6775664.php

TL:DR - Do not leave ANYTHING visible inside your car. Put everything in the trunk, preferably before you park.

Ask any local and when we park our cars on the street there is NOTHING in our cars. Not even a charging cable or pack of gum. Some of my neighbors even leave their doors unlocked or windows open so they don't have to replace another broken window.

I'm sorry this happened to you in our city. Unfortunately both tourists and residents have to deal with this.

Posted by
17867 posts

"Unfortunately, often times (here anyway) leaving things only in the trunk doesn't help because accessing the trunk via a back seat is very easy with many cars and the thieves know it."

Accessing the trunk from within the car might be easy, but breaking into the car is a crime and senseless if there is nothing of value in the trunk. It was probably because of the suitcases in obvious view from the outside that the car was broken into.

Posted by
4522 posts

Lee is right, even though it is easy to get into a trunk, if nothing is visible, the chances of someone breaking into the car to SEE if anything might be in the trunk is less. Of course, there are cars with no trunk and it can be hard to hide things away. And even if you do have a trunk, don't park, then put things in the trunk as someone could well be watching you do that.

Hotels will almost always hold your bags if you arrive before check-in. That is much safer than leaving bags in a car.

Rental cars often have a sticker or barcode; even if discreet the thieves know what to look for. Rental cars are a prime target as thieves know they are more likely to contain stuff.

I've had my own car window broken just so they could steal some loose change. Never leave anything in sight.

Sorry you got robbed. But thanks for the reminder/warning to people.

Posted by
503 posts

Kyle, you say that your two bags were stolen, but make no mention of your wife's bags which leads me to believe that perhaps hers were in the trunk and yours were in the back seat? Maybe not. Anyway, having several family members who are in law enforcement, I've been told that thieves will break into your car if they see a dime on the seat. I remember reading somewhere that if you leave a local newspaper visible inside the car it might make a potential thief think you are local, if they even care. Sorry for your experience, what an awful way to start a vacation.

Posted by
7671 posts

Lee, the bad guys here do not care if it's a crime. To them it is not senseless if they hit pay dirt in the trunk, which, chances are, they will. They hit 30 or more cars every day, every night whether there's anything visible or not and it pays off for them. The courts in SF are very lenient for this crime, if they even get caught at all, so there's no real consequence to them and they go right back out and keep doing it. If you leave something visible, all the better for them, but they just go car after car after car along a street or wherever and take whatever they can get.

It's smart to hide everything from view but even if you do, you still have a much higher chance of getting broken into in SF than most anywhere else. It does not matter if it's a rental, if it's a nice car, a junker, a local newspaper's on the seat, if it's parked in a good area, in a pay garage, etc. It is a very frustrating problem for all of us here.

Posted by
518 posts

...and then there are those that break car windows not to steal things, but for the joy of vandalism. You'll find an entire block where every other car has a window broken simply because the perpetrator thought it was fun.

Posted by
6539 posts

It seems like the only "lesson" that is 100% safe for belongings is to avoid renting a car altogether. If no behavioral changes or approaches have any (or very negligible) effect on being a target, then there is nothing to work with here that could make an appreciable difference. I guess if you feel compelled to rent a car, then do the best you can to hide everything including radio/gps/maps/minor things, don't rent a car with out-of-state plates or a rental sticker/identifier, and hope for the best. I have a friend who lives there (without a car) who has gotten her bike stolen multiple times despite locking it up.

It's been a long time since I've been to SF, but does someone need to be as vigilant about being mugged as well? I recall the atmosphere varied from street to street, even on the main drags.

Posted by
2147 posts

Agnes--I live near SF and go there frequently to visit friends, shop, dine, drink and hear live music, usually in what's known as a dive bar. I also love the opera, so the places I go are a varied bunch of neighborhoods and in general it just pays to be vigilant in SF no matter what area you're in. I do credit my comfort with SF to being a huge factor in being comfortable heading to Europe and exploring on my own.

Posted by
10 posts

Thanks for all the replies and sympathies! To clear things up a bit, in our case the bags were in the trunk. It was a hatchback and they smashed the back window and grabbed what they could. There was a cover hiding the trunk contents but before we left to walk around we did get a few things out of the trunk so I'm guessing we were being watched. My wife's bags were there too but I'm guessing they ran out of time because her small carryon was right next to mine and they didn't grab it. Two other cars in the same parking lot got hit at the same time that we did. They were both sedans but this didn't make any difference as they broke the driver-side windows and popped the trunks. To answer another question, this happened at Twin Peaks at about 2 in the afternoon on a Tuesday and the place was full of people which shows just how quietly and quickly they get away with this.

Best of luck and happy travels!

Posted by
2753 posts

Wow! Twin Peaks is hardly a main line tourist spot.

Posted by
518 posts

I've been to Twin Peaks many times and have seen tour buses up there too. The place can get shady at night, no doubt about it. Broad daylight seems a little crazy for a break-in, granted, there are a few different parking areas up there and some, even during broad daylight, they can be out of the way just enough for a break-in.

Posted by
102 posts

For San Francisco specifically, I agree with the previous post which is to just not rent a car! Parking is horrible, the one-way streets are confusing, and of course there are a lot of break ins. I don't even drive my car here! I'm stuck with my car for another year, but that's another story :)

It's easy to take Bart into the city or pay a bit for a cab/Lyft, and it's easier to navigate the city without a car.

I hope you get the chance to come back and have a better experience!

Posted by
7671 posts

I don't think navigating SF w/o a car is easier at all unless you use Uber/Lyft. Public transportation here is terrible, especially for a tourist.

Posted by
7671 posts

Agnes, yes, you have to be vigilant about being mugged here. I gave one example in a post above. Happens even in good areas.

Posted by
17867 posts

"leaving things only in the trunk doesn't help because accessing the trunk via a back seat is very easy with many cars"

If they can see suitcases in the back seat, thieves know there is a good chance of there being something in the car worth stealing. If there is nothing visible, he's taking a chance of getting caught for nothing. If there are a lot of cars around, one with a suitcase on the back seat is a lot more likely to be the one broken into.

Posted by
7671 posts

That logic doesn't apply in SF.

In SF, majority of thieves do not target one car, they go down the street or pkng lot and hit car after car in a row. If nothing is visible, they know there's a good possibility there's something in the trunk worth stealing.

As a previous poster said, many do it just for "fun".

The articles cited above explain all this and explain why it happens. Main reason why is because there are no consequences if they get caught... and most never get caught.

Posted by
12158 posts

Hi,

My compliments to my fellow Bay Area folks here in answering quite accurately on how it is in SF and Oakland. I wouldn't be going to Coit Tower lingering there late at night either, definitely not on foot even with a group. How often do you see as you are walking down the street block a pile of safety glass is on the side walk? Sometimes as pointed out above this pile of safety glass is not the only one for that one block, there might a series of them, say 3-4, ie a lot of cars got hit that night. North Beach, Civic Tender, the lovely Tenderloin, Mission street, from Van Ness to Chinatown, Franklin heading north. It's also a matter of odds, the likelihood of a car parked somewhere with a bag in the back seat, any bag, a grip bag, maybe full of dirty gym clothes, maybe electronic gear. Chances are that bag is an opportunity crime target.

I've known people, presumably you may be familiar with this experience, when moving just used a big garbage bag to stash their pots and pans, etc stuff that couldn't packed due to time, ie, just throw everything in the big garbage bag to be sorted out later, have the bag in a pick up truck, parked at night, only to discover their garbage bag of valuables was ripped open, broken into.

If you have the street smarts from SF/Oakland or the Bay Area on foot, taking public transportation at night (depends where too), I agree with comment above that this certainly prepares you for Europe.

Posted by
356 posts

Alarmed and sad. Some two decades ago while in CA, I visited SF frequently. Touring every neighborhood mentioned here, and loving them all. How times have changed.

Unaware of such break-ins here in the East Coast. Yet?