Thieves target ride-sharing apps like Getaround, D.C. attorney general says

The sharing economy has spawned some crazy ideas, but leaving the keys to your car IN your car and telling the world where it is might be among the most peculiar. That’s precisely how car sharing apps like Getaround, the AirBnB of rental cars, work. And while there are security measures in place designed to stop theft, authorities are ringing the alarm that criminals are clearly getting around those measures.

In perhaps the least surprising notification ever, the Washington D.C. attorney general’s office this month warned residents to “use the app with caution” after a string of thefts related to Getaround and other car-sharing apps have emerged.  The Washington Post reported 90 car-sharing-app-related incidents in recent months, including 50 thefts — a sizeable portion of the 800-or-so cars listed available for rental on the various apps.

Car sharing sounds like a good idea. Most people spend a lot of money on cars and insurance, only to see that expensive asset sitting idle on the street or in a parking lot for most of the time.  So using the car to generate some extra cash makes sense. And it’s easy to imagine magic tech that protects the cars from theft. After all, GPS tracks the cars, and there are various auto immobilization technologies that seemingly can prevent someone from renting a car and driving away with it forever. Getaround also offers insurance and promises to make victims whole in case of a theft.

Alas, there are bumps on the road to car sharing nirvana.

We’ll start with the security measures that are supposed to stop thieves in their tracks.

“We have heard reports, however, that these features are not available on all cars, have not been working properly, and can be easily thwarted,” D.C.’s attorney general warns in his alert.

How? Even if these features worked perfectly on their own, Getaround has to deal with the human element. Owners and renters need to follow proper procedures every time, or else they break. It’s easy to imagine human error creeping in. And since car thieves don’t have much to do other than bop around the city working off a list of potential targets until they find a mistake — the equivalent of trying a bunch of car doors until they find one that’s unlocked — time is on the criminal’s side.  Some owners even make this easy on criminals by placing a Getaround sticker on their cars, telling any passerby that — somewhere inside, the keys to steal the car are inside the vehicle.

Getaround offers two main security features: A lockbox for the key, so it’s not just left sitting under a car mat, and immobilization technology that can remotely prevent a car from starting. The lockbox is fine, as long as it’s used all the time.  But might some renter leave the keys on the floor instead?  Also, there’s the issue of smart key fobs. These fobs broadcast proximity to the car, letting drivers use the vehicle with a fob in their pocket, or in the glove box or …. in a lockbox.  So Getaround owners must carefully place fobs in a supplied “RF pouch” (Faraday Cage?), and then in the lockbox, to prevent driveaways.  Think every renter, every time, replaces the fob in the pouch correctly?

Then there’s Getaround’s enhanced security immobilization technology. That works, unless drivers go somewhere without great 4G reception.    If they do, the car won’t start. Think about every time your phone drops a call. The first time a driver encounters these kinds of glitches with immobilization, they are bound to turn off the feature — at least temporarily, and then perhaps leave it off. Car immobilization isn’t perfect, either. Sometimes it turns off cars for seemingly no reason.

The real backstop Getaround offers is insurance — and the reassurance that if something goes wrong, owners will get their cars back, or get a new one.

“Getaround’s insurance will refund you the value of your vehicle, determined by an expert, or at the purchase price if your vehicle is less than 12 month old,” the firm says.  

Insurance is only as good and the speed at which claims are processed. Getaround’s entire company relies on trust of owners, so it would be an existential threat to the firm if claims were handled poorly. There are enough complaints online about misuse of owner cars that potential users should think carefully about using the service, and always have a backup plan in case something goes wrong.  Owners should also check with their insurance company about claims that might arise from Getaround membership. Theft or damage that occurs outside a Getaround rental might only be covered by the owner’s personal policy, which may or may not pay out such a claim.

For its part, Getaround told the Washington Post that it takes security and safety seriously.

“Keeping our owners and their cars safe is our top priority.” The company said it has a team working 24/7 on preventing and addressing safety incidents, including screening and monitoring users.

“Every Getaround driver must pass a thorough trust and safety screening to verify their identity and driving record,” spokeswoman Meg Murray said. “Our process involves 17 points of reference, including both social verification and the Department of Motor Vehicles in each state.”

The firm offered this statement to DCist:

“We are aware of the incidents in D.C. and are taking actions to mitigate them, both operationally and through product updates—including working with our partner garage(s) to ensure sufficient security is being put in place to prevent future break-ins from occurring,” the statement says.

Getaround renters sign up via Facebook and Google, so that provides some measure of identity verification. Still, take profiles aren’t hard to create. And those ID checks don’t protect against a criminal finding Getaround cars to target through someone’s else’s phone or a criminal spotting a sticker and a key on the floor.

Does this mean you shouldn’t use car sharing apps like Getaround? No. It just means use them with your eyes wide open. And don’t get lazy about security features.  Word is out: criminals are targeting these cars.











About Bob Sullivan 1444 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

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