I can’t believe this is happening. There I was on the phone, explaining to a representative of a car manufacturer how, when and where the spare tire of a demo unit was stolen… again.

Not again.

Just over 7 months ago during the holiday break, I was lent the latest version of a very popular SUV. It was a rather lengthy borrow, testing the car’s improvements over the last model especially in terms of ride and comfort. I’m sure by now you know of which SUV I’m talking about; it’s the Toyota Fortuner.

After the loaner period, they went to pick up the car and, lo and behold, the spare tire was missing. I had absolutely no idea how they got it, when they stole it, where it was taken or who took it. The why pretty much answers itself.

Needless to say, it’s the most embarassing moment in my professional career. I take great pride in taking care of loaner cars, better than my own car, in fact. To return one weighing one full-size, spare alloy wheel and tire less is the most shame I’ve ever felt in this job… and the fact that I didn’t even know until it was too late didn’t help. It wasn’t the best way to kick off 2012.

You get over it though, but the paranoia does stay in the back of your mind. Nevertheless, the same car manufacturer lent me another Fortuner this past week, albeit with the gasoline engine. This time, I was far more cautious, checking the spare so religiously that you could almost call it the automotive equivalent of upskirts.

As fate would have it, when I was entering a parking lot on the day of its return, I heard an unusual sound; something along the lines of a chain dangling.

Uh oh. My world just shrank. Population: me.

Yes, it happened again; and the weird part is that it could only have happened at one of two malls I went to the other day. Now all these guys need are two more hapless Fortuner drivers and they’ve got a complete set.

More to the point: this is the price of popularity. Being such a highly sought-after model since 2005, the Toyota Fortuner is one of the most targeted vehicles to rip off; the other one, off the top of my head, is the Mitsubishi Montero Sport. Common targets are spare tires, side mirrors and emblems, and chances are these will be sold back to other victims of the same crime.

I was lucky to have only lost a spare tire, as carjacking cases at gunpoint seem to be prevalent nowadays. The PNP and DILG stated that the cases of carjackings in Metro Manila has decreased by half during the month of March 2012 to 53 incidents compared to 105 in March 2011, but 53 cases isn’t a stellar number by any means. It’s still 53 people, possibly 53 families that have been robbed of their car, and means nearly 2 cars are taken at gun or knifepoint every day in Metro Manila.

Contrary to popular belief, theives typically avoid high end vehicles like a Benzes, BMWs and the like for the fear that they may contain some kind of high tech tracking devices, or perhaps for fear of reprisals from their affluent or possibly powerful owners.

Cars considered common or models that have sold significant numbers are the best targets for these guys, as they can easily be chopped up and sold for the value of the parts. And because they’re popular, they can easily move the parts and components as opposed to selling a stolen car as a whole. It’s also easier to blend in with traffic driving a stolen Civic, Corolla, Fortuner, Vios, Innova, Montero, Starex or Tucson than it is to go around in a Merc, a Lexus or a BMW.

Nevertheless, here are a few tips and precautions for you out there into avoiding these situations, and all really just involve a little tactical thinking and planning.

  1. Secure where you park - Avoid dark places, even if you’re in a mall (remember, I suspect that the spare was stolen in a mall parking lot). Best places to park are near the areas where guards normally patrol and near the entrances. If you park on a street, pick an area with the most witnesses around. ‘Management may not be held responsible for any theft and/or damage to your vehicle and possessions’, but it’s hard to use that excuse if your car is right in front of their entrance, right?
  2. Keep valuables out of sight or out of the car entirely - This shouldn’t be a problem if you’re tinted, but nevertheless, criminals and petty theives are getting clever (they have to be in that business). Getting an iPod, laptop or iPhone from a car whose owner just let it sit on the seat while parked will be a good payday for him. Or her.
  3. Be smart about your route - GPS may be a great tool, but on more than one occasion, it has taken me on roads that I wouldn’t have dared drive on if I was in my own car, much less in a multi-million peso ride. These guys are predators, and really it’s up to us -the prey- to avoid playing into their hands or ending up in their territory, especially at night.
  4. Be alert and vigilant - Probably the most important one. Scan your surroundings constantly. If you can drive in Metro Manila traffic, then you’ve probably developed an almost instinctive level of driving alertness and awareness about where the other cars, pedestrians, motorcycles or other road users are. Use it to your advantage. Don’t drive oblivious; pay attention to signs like where the nearest police station or barangay hall is.
  5. Have a plan - It’s not an actual ‘plan’ per se, but more of an ‘if this happens, then I’ll do this’ kind of thing. If you feel like you’re going to be preyed upon you could resort to having the PNP hotline (it’s 117) on speed dial if you can’t move your car in traffic. If your car is mobile, perhaps you can speed on out of the area or to the nearest police station. There are plenty of things you can do, just have a particular plan and apply it. And don’t panic.

I’m sure you can think of more things, depending on your situation. For me it’s about the call of shame right now. Calling up a manufacturer once to report a stolen spare is pretty embarassing, but twice?

Oh well.