San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Tourists Warned About Rental Car Burglaries

TOURIST Carroll Collins knows therules; he is a private investigator and hasbeen vacationing in Costa Rica for years:Don’t leave valuables visible in your rentalcar. Don’t accept help in fixing a flat tire.Park your car in a safe place.Still, it happened.Last month Collins was traveling withhis family along the central Pacific coastnear Quepos and stopped for lunch at oneof his favorite restaurants. He hid his backpackson the floorboard of his rented sedanand made sure his luggage was out of sightin the trunk.It was about 2:30 p.m. and the restaurantwas crowded. Shortly after arriving,Collins returned to his car. First he noticedthe back door was unlocked, although he iscertain he had locked it. Then he noticedhis belongings were gone.COLLINS is not the first tourist to getburglarized in Costa Rica, but claims hewas the only victim in the crowded parkinglot on that day.“I asked myself, ‘is there anything toindicate on the car that we are tourists?’”he said.The answer is yes. Collins showed TheTico Times a number written in blackmarker on the license plate that matched anumber written on the key chain given tohim by the rental car company.“People in the crime business knowthis, and know that this is the car of atourist,” he said.Collins is from Florida, where severaltourists’ murders in rental cars in 1993 ledto state legislation prohibiting rental carcompanies from putting any insignia ormarkings on vehicles that could identifythem as rentals.Costa Rica has no such law.REGARDLESS of markings, rentalcar agents say thieves can easily identifyrented cars by their model, age and standardfeatures, as well as who is in them.“It’s the little stuff, but it’s obvious.They don’t have rain covers over the windows,or nice stereos. They have standard issueblack rims. A person who couldafford to buy one of these cars, could alsoafford to have some of the extras,” saidAllen Ramírez, of Payless car rental.Tourists are recognized for who theyare, not for what they drive, according toZenius Doyley, of Dollar Rent a Car.“They follow tourists. They see themon the road or in the street and then followthem until they park. It’s not that the carsays Dollar Rent a Car or Economy,” hesaid.“The problem is not that the car is rented,but rather that people leave theirbelongings in sight,” said Oscar Gamboaof Alamo car rental.MOST car rental agencies warn theirclients of the risk of getting burglarized,usually in writing. None, however, offersany insurance against burglary of personalitems from the car.“The fact is that if you leave yourthings in the car, you could lose them,”Doyley said.Tourists who are traveling with theirbelongings in their cars, from one part ofthe country to another, should try to checkinto their new hotel before stopping anywhereelse, said Gustavo Mato, head of theproperty crimes section of the JudicialInvestigative Police (OIJ).When this is not possible, peopleshould bring all of their valuable belongings– purses, cameras and passports – intowherever they stop.“Costa Rica is one of the safest countriesin Central America. But we have hadproblems with this. We need to informpeople where this happens more; it is notgoing to make them afraid, but rather givethem confidence,” said Mata, who is workingwith the National Chamber of Tourismto such ends.THE OIJ does not compile statisticsspecifically on rental car break-ins.However, Mata said most car burglarieshappen in metropolitan San José, near theairport and at tourist hotspots. The rentalcar burglary circuit does not typicallyinclude the Caribbean zone, he said.While rental car agents consulted byThe Tico Times disagreed whether the rateof incidents has increased or decreased inrecent years, Mata said he thought theyhave remained fairly steady.Mata advises tourists to always park inparking lots. Although signs are frequentlyposted in parking lots here saying lot operatorsare not responsible for what happensto parked vehicles, the Supreme Courtrecently ruled otherwise.On June 18, the Supreme Court ruledin favor of a car owner whose car was brokeninto in the parking lot of the San JoséPalacio hotel. Mata said the hotel ownerhad to pay the damages the car sufferedwhile parked.“A hotel has the responsibility to preventdamages from happening,” he said.The OIJ agent said the decision also pertainsto shopping malls and other establishments.STILL, tourists who are in the countrytemporarily rarely have the time or inclinationto file and follow up on related complaints.Tourists rarely appear as witnesses athearings against accused thieves, to facilitatetheir prosecution, and almost neverrecover their belongings at the depositoryfor recovered stolen objects, where areceipt and serial number are required,according to Mata.Though he hopes the Supreme Court’sdecision will increase vigilance amongparking lot operators, time may literallywork against them.Thieves can burglarize cars in minutes,even seconds. Mata said he knows of oneexpert thief who can make a key using amold of the lock in 18 seconds. Criminalsalso use screwdrivers and T-shaped irontools to break car locks, or special toolsthat slip between the window and the door.Collins speculated that somebody hadcopied the keys for his rental car and usedthe corresponding numbers to later locateit, making a fast break-in possible. Butwhile rental car agents said such a scenariois possible, because they rarely change thelocks on their cars, thieves use other methods,they said.ANOTHER scam that has been popularin recent years involves thieves whopuncture holes in rental car tires and thenfollow the car until the driver stops to fixthe flat. They then offer their help and burglarizethe car in the process.This has become less common aspolice and rental car agents have caughton, according to agents.Still, agents tell drivers that if they geta flat they should drive to a service station,no matter how far, to fix it in a safe place.Most rental car agencies also rent cellphones for approximately $2 a day to callfor help in case of car problems.

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