When Danielle Huber's 1998 Nissan Maxima was stolen in April, she figured the car would be stripped for parts or shipped across the border — never to be seen again.
But when police found her car parked on Diamond Street in early June, she discovered that the thief had changed the oil and the window washer fluid, installed a new battery, switched her radio for a new one, and upgraded her Garmin GPS to a newer model.
"They took it as their own. They were maintaining it. From a quick glance," she admits, "it was maintained slightly better than right before it was taken."
Huber forgot to check the odometer to see how many miles the thieves had driven in her car. But if the directions on the GPS unit are any indication, it appears the thief was using the car to go to stores and restaurants — including the Olive Garden — throughout San Francisco and the East Bay.
To Michael Rushford, a criminologist with the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, the thieves' brazen behavior shows they are not scared of the police.
"Most of the time when a car gets stolen, the thief will take it to a shop and strip it for parts or send it out of state," he says. "They are not scared of the police at all if they were driving it around town."
While police don't keep numbers on how often thieves take care of the cars they've stolen, Rushford says they tend not to keep them long either way. But if they're going to be hauling drugs, the thinking goes, they might as well top off the fluids.
Car theft is a complex social problem; a thief can have many reasons for stealing one, says Frank Scafidi, a former FBI agent who now works with the National Insurance Crime Bureau.
"There's a range of people who steal cars, from those who happen to see a chance to steal a car, all the way to those doing it as part of an organized group."
Huber's joy was short-lived, however, as her insurance company towed it from her Grove Street home to an auction lot. Two days before the car was recovered, she had cashed the $1,500 insurance check she received. It was insurance company property — new radio and all.
Three months later, Huber is still without a car. She has been calling the auctioning company every week to see if her car will be open for bids. She wants to buy it back with the money she got from the insurance company.
She might get the last laugh, though, as the auction company's website lists similar Nissan models going for $300 to $400 dollars.
"It raises a lot of questions about ownership," she says, reflecting on the situation. "I don't care about the money, I just want the car."