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15 Ways to Spot a Stolen Car

15 Ways to Spot a Stolen Car

Lieutenant Raymond E. Foster, LAPD (ret.)


I include vanity plates under the general term “stickers” as in “bumper stickers.” People put these individual markings on their cars as a way to tell you something about themselves. If I saw a “Pearl Harbor Survivor” vanity plate on a car being driven by a 20-something, I would take a second look. Yes, they could be driving grandpa’s car. It’s not enough for a traffic stop – but, it is enough to take a closer look. There are sorts of these stickers – imagine you see an “Obama/Biden for President” bumper sticker. As you pass the car, you note the driver has an Aryan Brother tattoo on his neck. Is this his car? Again, it doesn’t mean the car is stolen, but it’s worth a cop’s double-take.

Black and White Fever

It’s not a crime to avoid the police. But, sometimes there is a reason people are avoiding you. Hopefully, you have already learned that the best patrol speed is slightly below the speed limit and in the right-hand most lane. You simply see more and have more time to react. As you patrol, watch the rearview mirror. Lots of people aren’t going to want to pass you; I watched the people who didn’t pass and then made the earliest right-hand turn. I made the next right, sped up slightly and often met them at the next cross street. You can tell a lot by a driver’s reaction to you suddenly appearing.

Driver Unfamiliarity

Because I am unfamiliar with the car, whenever I rent a car I have a terrible time with the bright lights and the windshield wipers. They are sometimes combined on the same gadget. The point is that if someone acts as if they are new to the car, they are new to the car. The most egregious example you may find is some attempting to drive a manual transmission who clearly can’t. This is an excellent time to reiterate that unfamiliarity doesn’t mean the car is stolen. I didn’t steal the rentals, but have activated the turn signals instead of the wipers on many occasions.

Rental Cars

Stolen rental cars can be somewhat complex investigations. Unless the company has reported the car stolen, the company is likely to consider it overdue and not be helpful in assisting with prosecution. However, they are usually worth a second look. Perhaps not a traffic stop, but a look at the driver and a check of the plate is a good expense of time and energy. Of course, if you work around a tourist destination such as an airport, rentals maybe fairly common.

Hard Driving

Just as we are sometimes unfamiliar with the operation of a rental car we also might not treat rentals as we would our own cars. It is the same for car thieves. Hard driving will likely lead to some type of traffic violation and your entry into a stop. Additionally, illegally and oddly parked vehicles are a clue that the driver was inattentive and/or just didn’t care. Before you hang that parking cite on an unattended vehicle, check the plate. As you cruise through your local parking lots, newer cars that are parked in some unusual manner, like very close to another car thus risking dents, are candidates for a second look.

Ducks can Fly

As you get better at honing in on vehicles based on the first 12 tactics of this article, you will find more unattended stolen vehicles – sitting ducks or just plain ducks. If you spot an unattended vehicle and it turns out to be stolen don’t assume it has been abandoned. It’s a developed talent to drift by a car, pick up the plate and run it without burning the car. If you don’t burn it (alerting the suspects to your presence and knowledge) you have a decision to make. Impound or surveillance. This decision will be driven by a number of factors such as your department policy, radio calls in the queue, availability of a place of concealment and so on. The point is that just because you have a duck doesn’t mean you don’t necessarily have an arrest.

Chop Shops

Many professional car thieves tow cars and often the thefts are based on orders. As an example, if you find a stripped 88 Honda Accord in alley, cruise around and see if you can find an auto repair shop working on a similar vehicle. Take a close look at your state’s vehicle code. It likely gives you a lot of leeway with respect to towing companies and auto repair shops. If you are a municipal police officer or sheriff’s deputy, corner a state highway patrol officer or trooper. Either a state highway patrol officer or trooper are likely really knowledgeable on exactly what you can do and what constitutes probable cause with tow trucks and auto repair shops. Moreover, if you have a detective in your agency that specializes in auto theft investigations, talk to that person. The main point is while you are talking to auto theft experts, tow truck drivers and auto repair shop owners you will gain significantly more experience than you could ever pick up from this article!

Stay safe and good hunting!

About the Author
Lieutenant Raymond E. Foster, LAPD (ret.) retired from the Los Angeles Police Department. He is the author or co-author of six books including Police Technology and Leadership: Texas Hold ‘em Style. He can be contacted through his website at

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