Who Stole My Tires?


I recently had my tires rotated, a service that was provided free by the garage where I purchased the treads a year earlier. When the mechanic took a look, the news was not good: The tires apparently were bald, not a brand the garage even sold, and if I hoped to navigate through the ice and snow, it was imperative that I purchase new tires that day. “We didn’t sell you those,” the mechanic said. “Someone switched them out. Don’t you look at your tires?”

My situation had already spread among the mechanics, many stopping work to get a look at the jackass who did not regularly run his fingers over the rubber ridges on which he was about to rest his family’s lives for the hundreds of miles of terror known as a holiday vacation. The garage pulled the paperwork to prove that they sold me a different brand than the bald tires on which I’d rolled in, quickly asserting their innocence in the matter. Someone had swapped out my tires.

My suspicion initially landed on the New York City parking facility where I rented space six months earlier, before it closed. A parking attendant there was a bit too friendly, a bit too eager to park my car in the “special section” of the garage, the basement, right next to his. It so happened we had the same vehicle — same make, model, even color — and he once commented on my new tires. He would have had access to the garage late at night, once it closed, and could have easily made the switch. I contacted the management company with this investigative feedback, only to be told I was incorrect. I was passed off to a regional director, who suggested that accusing them of theft was serious business and threatened to get lawyers involved. I was instructed to fill out a vehicle incident report and file it with the claims office, which ultimately denied my grievance for lack of evidence.

My insurance company was even less interested in hearing about the “whodunnit” and more interested in blaming me. Did I have receipts of the old and new tires? Could I upload the receipts and photos of the purported bald wheels to the website? A claims adjustor had to inspect the car to ensure I was not lying to get my insurer to pay for new tires, which was more common than I thought. My insurer notified my new parking garage of its implication. “I know my guys,” the determined manager said upon hearing an insurance adjustor was on the way. “We didn’t steal nothing. Don’t you look at your tires?”

It was a question I heard from all parties — my father, mechanics, garage attendants, even my wife. The truth is I don’t look at my tires. I parked in what I believed to be a secure location, regularly checking the pressure and rotating the tires to ensure that my wife and sons had a safe, all-traction ride. The tires were stolen from a vehicle with two children’s safety seats in clear view in the rear, which in my estimate was grounds for a full-blown criminal investigation until the guilty parties were relieved of their wrenches. Instead of cooperation in my probe, I was another bumbling, insured car owner up against a system of corporate parking garages and insurance bureaucracy, all of which preferred my acquiescence to uncovering the truth of what happened.

Data from the National Insurance Crime Bureau show that car thefts are declining in the U.S., even as organized crime syndicates are stealing tires and rims. The Insurance Journal reports that thieves are “targeting newer vehicles parked in neighborhoods, in parking lots, even at dealer lots — anywhere they can quickly jack the car up, remove the wheels, and leave it sitting on blocks.”

When it comes to the treads, there’s an entire underground economy with which car owners are unintentionally duplicitous. It’s a lucrative scheme for everyone involved: The culprits steal the tires and sell them to collision repair shops for hundreds of dollars; the repair shop doubles the price and bills a new customer or insurance company, which quietly passes the fees off to clients; and insurance companies take care of the victim. In between there is a bunch of paperwork and suspicious accusations and an entire claims adjustment industry paid to investigate whether a theft actually occurred, though it is not expected to solve it. Eventually the whole system fumbles toward the next set of wheels.

I’m not the first person to fall victim to the tire racket. Months earlier, my wife’s friend returned from dinner to four wobbly, bald wheels. My insurance representative recounted an acquaintance, somewhere in the wilds of Minnesota, who had also reported stolen tires. As strange as it sounds, in some small, dismembered sense of fairness, it was preferable that my misfortune was due to a bicoastal, all-terrain crime syndicate, the Gambinos and Bonannos and Corleones rolled into one.

And yet — what kind of incompetent mafia had plundered my Rav4 but left behind an unused spare tire? Any well-organized mob, driving around a city in the middle of the night doing mob things, would certainly have use for a spare in case a pothole, or a bullet, resulted in a flat. Didn’t they realize if I was stupid enough not to notice four bald tires, then it would be months before I got around to removing the spare cover on the back to find an additional theft? In the mob stories I’ve watched, they always take the essentials from the crime scene. “Leave the gun,” Clemenza says in The Godfather. “Take the cannoli.” Or the way Christopher and Tony encountered bikers lifting cases of wine in a Sopranos’ episode, enduring a shootout to ensure they did not leave behind even a few cases of red. “Leave the kids’ seats and the Dave Matthews CDs,” a wise guy mechanic would have said. “Take the spare.”

More than likely, my tire theft was less exciting. I was likely duped by the parking attendant, a fellow Rav4 owner, before my garage closed last May. If that’s the culprit, then I unwittingly drove several thousand miles over the summer and autumn with my family in the car without so much as a faulty skid. That implies that whoever stole my tires took the time to carefully tighten every derelict bolt, properly inflate each bald tire, perhaps giving the vehicle a hasty inspection in the darkened crime scene before vanishing to sell my property in the underground economy beneath our cities. If nothing else, I’m thankful for the proficient service.

Photo by Mike Krzeszak