Car Theft

Couple of weeks ago, when I went down to my apartment parking garage to get my car, it wasn’t located where I normally park it. I walked up and down to the other levels in the garage, thinking perhaps I parked on another level, to no avail. At this point, I started thinking perhaps the car got towed because I did a bad job parking. The Tesla app showed me where the car was located, and the location was somewhere in Anacostia in SE DC, a not very nice part of the town. I couldn’t see a towing company yard anywhere nearby.

Trying not to panic, I hurried over to the concierge to ask if any cars were towed the previous day. There weren’t any, but there were reports of some cars being rummaged through. Now the panic started rising. I immediately called Arlington police who promptly sent a police officer to take a report. The officer wrote down the necessary information and told me that because my app indicated the car was located in DC, they’ll have to send the incident information to DC police for them to investigate. She couldn’t give me a firm timeline on when this would happen. Finding this exasperating (the thief only had to disconnect my phone from the car for me to be unable to see the car on the map), I called DC police myself. They also took down a report, but weren’t sure they could do anything because I wasn’t located in DC. Notice the irony – the Arlington police couldn’t immediately do anything because the car was located in DC and the DC police couldn’t because I was located in Arlington.. the joys of living near state boundaries!

After about an hour of frantically checking my phone every few minutes to ensure the car hadn’t moved, I called DC police again to check if any action had been taken. They informed me that an officer was sent to check the street address reported by my Tesla app, but no car matching the description was found. I emailed the Arlington county police officer who had taken the incident report, and she hadn’t transferred the incident report to DC. She also “strongly advised” me to not check the location myself. However I felt that was exactly what I needed to do. I called Jessica for help and she promptly came over and we drove to the street address indicated on the Tesla app. However, I didn’t see my car at the street address (which was a location on a city street, not a parking lot). Growing increasingly despondent, we drove around the neighborhood but couldn’t find the car.

Then, I noticed that the car’s actual location on the map didn’t coincide with the street address. This can happen when the car is parked in an apartment parking lot, all of which maps to a single street address. So we drove to the physical location of the car shown on the Tesla app map. To my delight, I found the car right there! The location was the far end of a parking lot in a ghetto looking apartment community. I was very relieved that the location wasn’t inside a covered garage. Further, the car looked undamaged. I called DC police right away and emailed the Arlington county police officer. They both told me that help is on the way and advised me to stay away from the car. To their credit, a DC police car arrived within minutes. They asked me several other questions about the car and advised me to wait for the Arlington county police. The Arlington police arrived about 10 minutes later. They conducted their investigation and informed me that the car would be towed to the police yard in Arlington for fingerprinting and other evidence collection. I was just so relieved that the car was found and police were on the scene that I didn’t really care. Roughly half hour later, the tow truck arrived and Jessica and I followed the truck to the police yard in Arlington.

At the police yard, an evidence collection specialist asked me who had access to the car or had been in the car over the last few days. The intent was to differentiate the fingerprints and DNA of regular users of the car from that of whoever stole the car. He asked me to swab the inside of my mouth to collect my DNA and proceeded to swab the steering wheel, doors, center console and other interior surfaces to collect any DNA. He explained that he wouldn’t be collecting fingerprints because that required spraying the fingerprint powder inside the car which would make a mess. Once he was done collecting DNA, I could enter the car and look around to see what was missing. The car’s key card and some cash were missing, the contents of the receptacle under the center console were strewn about, the but everything else (including the registration) seemed OK. Not surprisingly, the car was reeking with a strong smell of cheap cologne and the radio was tuned to a rap station. The officer asked me if I could drive the car, and I said I could unlock the car using the phone, but to drive the car, I need the key card which was missing. At this point, a detour about how driver authentication works on a Tesla is needed. Incidentally, using the word “authentication”, (typically used in the context of digital applications) for a car shows Tesla’s lead in the adoption of digital technologies over more traditional car makers, many of who still use metal keys!

There are two ways to authenticate on a Tesla – using a key card and/or your phone. A Tesla comes with a pair of key cards that are paired with the car. You can tap the key card near the driver side window to unlock the car and tap the card on the center console to drive the car. Alternatively, you can connect your phone with the car and activate the “use my phone as key” feature. The car now unlocks automatically when the phone is in the vicinity (I suspect the car connects with the phone using Bluetooth, so vicinity means Bluetooth range) and a key card is not necessary to drive. When I purchased the car, the dealership had paired my phone with the car and turned on the “use my phone as key” feature. However at some point (perhaps due to a software update on my phone or the car or a time-to-live setting), this feature got turned off. The car started asking me to tap the key card on the center console to drive. This wasn’t an issue, because I kept one of the key cards in the car (and had lost the second one). However, because the “use my phone as key” feature was no longer active, the car was no longer locking itself automatically when I walked away from it. Therefore, anyone could just open the door, enter the car and use the key card (conveniently left by me in the car) to drive away with the car.

Coming back to the officer’s question about whether I could drive the car, I replied I couldn’t, because I didn’t have a key card. The officer told me that I could request the tow truck driver to tow the car to where I lived. The tow truck driver agreed to do so without charge. So we led the tow truck to a street near my apartment and he lowered the car in a parking spot. Because I couldn’t set the car in drive mode, the wheels were locked. Therefore lowering the car on the street raised quite a ruckus and required some deft maneuvering. It was around 1:30 in the morning and the noise woke up several of the neighbors. Some were glaring out of the window in annoyance and frustration and a few came out complaining angrily. Fortunately, most understood when I explained the situation.

Anyhow, we finally lowered the car. I thanked the tow truck driver profusely and returned to my apartment, cold and tired, but very relieved. The first order of business was getting new keys and deactivating the old ones (because otherwise the thief could simply use the key in his possession to easily steal the car again). Upon searching the Tesla forums for how to get a new key, I realized that I could actually turn on the “use my phone as key” feature on my Tesla app temporarily to drive the car. To turn the feature on permanently, I still needed the key card. So I ran back to the car, turned the feature on and was able to drive the car into my apartment parking garage. Had I known about being able to turn on this feature earlier, I could have driven the car from the police yard myself and avoided bothering the neighbors.. oh well.

Thus ended a scary and stressful car theft episode. Having your car stolen is never a good experience, but mine couldn’t have ended up better. I was able to find my car within a few hours of discovering that it was missing and there was no physical damage to the car or to the battery (always a concern in an electric vehicle, because the thief could have driven the car until the battery ran out, which would have caused severe damage to the battery)

There is an interesting coda to this story. The next morning, I realized that to turn on the “use my phone as key” feature, both the phone and car needed an internet connection. This meant the car could only be parked in those parts of the garage where a wireless signal was available. I didn’t know this when I parked the car the previous night and parked in the fourth level of my apartment parking garage, where there was no wireless signal. Fortunately, I was able to get out of this pickle by turning my Android phone into a wifi hotspot and set up a wifi relay. I placed the Android phone where it could get a wireless signal, and was also within WiFi range of the car. Then, I connected the Tesla to the Android phone hotspot. This way, the car had internet connectivity and I was able to turn on the “use my phone as key” feature and drive the car.

To deactivate the old key card and get new cards, I needed to visit the Tesla service center, which is closed on the weekends. There was a small risk the thief may come back and use his key card to steal the car again. So, I turned on the “Pin to Drive” feature on the car. When this is turned on, a 4 digit pin is needed to drive the car. Now the thief could still unlock the car using his key card, but not drive it. The following week, I went to the Tesla dealership and they deactivated the old key card and issued me new ones.

Lesson learnt:

  • The safest way to manage your Tesla is to turn on both the “use your phone as key” and “pin to drive” feature. This way, the car will automatically lock/unlock when your phone is in the vicinity and you’ll still need to enter a 4 digit PIN to drive the car.
  • If someone steals your phone, they’ll be able to unlock the car, but won’t be able to drive away with it (because they’ll need to know the PIN).
  • You should keep one key card in your phone wallet. If your phone runs out of battery, you can use the key card to unlock the car.
  • Keep the second key card at home. If you lose your phone, you can use the second key card to unlock the car.
  • NOT-TO-DO: Do not leave the key card in the car! Seems obvious when you think about it..



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