New car buyers who pay an extra fee for a “vehicle theft registration system” that supposedly deters car thieves are probably wasting their money, according to evidence compiled in several lawsuits against local car dealers.
Despite testimony that the systems actually do nothing to deter theft, the Intermediate Court of Appeals ruled on Monday that the several Cutter car dealerships did not violate state law by selling the systems without first complying with state insurance laws, and that claims the dealers engaged in unfair and deceptive sales practices had not been properly made.
The case consolidated several similar lawsuits regarding these anti-theft products sold by Cutter and provided by Safe-Guard Products International, Inc. and Red Swan Incorporated.
The appeals court ruled the VTRs are legally “warranties” rather than “insurance”, and rejected the claims made on behalf of angry consumers who paid $169 to $399 to have an identification number etched into their vehicle’s windows, with the understanding they would be paid $1,500 or $2,500 if their vehicle were stolen.
Although the lawsuit was not successful, it did highlight questions about the effectiveness of these anti-theft systems.
An HPD officer in charge of car theft investigations testified that HPD officers do not use the systems to track stolen vehicles, and telephone calls to the companies were either not answered or yielded no useful information.
In their memorandum in opposition to the Motion for Partial SJ, Plaintiffs attached a declaration by Honolulu Police Department (HPD) Lieutenant Nobriga (Nobriga), in which he stated that he was in charge of the HPD Vehicle Theft Detail Criminal Investigation Division and was personally aware of the methods the officers in that division used to trace the ownership of stolen cars recovered on Oahu. Nobriga declared that “[i]n my experience, the non-[vehicle identification number (VIN)] etches by Safe-Guard and other commercial companies have never been used by the [HPD] in retrieving stolen vehicles, and I do not believe that they have any value in deterring auto theft in Honolulu.” Nobriga first learned of the Safe-Guard VTR approximately three months prior to making the declaration. He further stated that in the prior two to three months, officers under his direction had recovered about five to ten stolen vehicles that had window etches [VTRs], and in each case, when the officers called the 1-800 number associated with the etch [VTR], no one answered, the person who answered the call knew nothing about the situation or could not provide any information about the vehicle, or no one returned the message left by the officers.
Even a representative of one of the companies “could not specify a single instance in which a vehicle was recovered because of a VTR,” according to an interview transcript cited by attorneys in the case.
In addition, the cases cited legislative testimony by former state insurance commissioner Wayne Metcalf:
Metcalf further testified that “the [Insurance] Division’s investigation has found that the [VTR] is not used by any law enforcement agency on Oahu and is redundant to existing, more reliable, vehicle identification systems . . . . The product’s reputation among law enforcement as a method of theft deterrence is at best . . . dubious.”
Cutter, not surprisingly, defended the product.
Window etching deters theft because, among other things, the permanent code etched in the vehicle’s windows cannot be removed without breaking or noticeably marring the glass. Driving a stolen car with traceable, etched glass presents the risk of being caught and arrested if stopped by the police, who can easily trace the vehicle’s owner by calling the registration administrator. Stealing a vehicle with identification codes etched on the glass is unprofitable because glass replacement is expensive. Professional thieves recognize that vehicles with etched windows are traceable, glass is expensive to replace, and the automobile and etched glass are difficult to sell, even to illegal “chop shops.”
It looks like this is another one of those cases of “buyer beware”.