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Car Care

There Went the Car and the Honeymoon

November 19, 1998|STEVE PARKER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This column usually concerns specific "car care" items, and today's is no different, though we'll take a bit of a detour. Here, we offer advice on how to keep your car (and the valuables inside) so you can care for it for many years to come.

Consider:

The happy couple pulled their vacation rental car up to the valet stand of the New Otani Hotel on the quiet east side of Waikiki Beach in Honolulu, ready to start their wedding-honeymoon adventure. Like millions of other tourists, they were told by the pleasant-enough valet to leave the keys in the ignition, pop open the trunk and go to the lobby to check in.

"Your bags," they were assured, "will be in your room in 10 minutes."

But the bags never made it to the room. And the car never even made it to a parking space. In the moments between the time the couple entered the lobby and before the valet could get to the car, a thief jumped into the open vehicle, twisted the key in the ignition and quickly drove off into traffic. Talk about a crime of opportunity.

And there's a twist to this story: That wasn't just any tourist couple. That was me and my soon-to-be wife, and the luggage, including all our wedding clothes, was ours. Imagine! Me, professional media observer of all things automotive, getting ripped off by one of the oldest tricks in the car-theft book.

I should have known better. For 20 years, I have regularly driven the latest, hottest and most expensive cars in the world, and I have made it my practice to shun the valet stand. The idea of giving a $25,000-plus piece of equipment to a complete stranger to be driven and treated who-knows-how is simply beyond me.

*

Now, I'm sure the vast majority of valet parking operators are upstanding people with a quality employee pool that would do even the FBI proud. But I should have followed my usual instincts--and the advice I always give others--to avoid using valet parking whenever possible.

Here's my checklist for avoiding trouble:

* Check out the valet area around the restaurant or hotel when you pull up. Is there anyone suspicious hanging around? Are the valets dressed professionally, and do they appear to act businesslike? Or, as is sometimes the case, are the valets themselves the ones who look suspicious? If you have any qualms, just drive on and park in a nearby public lot or on the street. Of course, if it's at night, make sure wherever you park is well-lit.

* If the lot itself seems secure but you still don't trust the setup, try to pay the valet in advance, park the car yourself and lock it (don't leave the keys!) on the lot. As long as you're not blocking any other cars, the valet will usually allow this--especially if you tip in advance too.

* Never leave the keys in the ignition and the doors open. Take the extra few seconds to shut off the engine, lock the doors and hand the keys to the valet as he or she gives you a claim check.

* When checking into a hotel, stay with the car while your luggage is removed and taken into the hotel lobby. Think about it: We devote weeks or even months to planning our vacation or business trip, spend time and money buying the clothes and whatever else we take with us, and then several times during the course of our travels hand over virtually every valuable we have to a bunch of strangers.

* Never leave valuables in your car or, if you can help it at all, in luggage that you do not keep with you at all times. Placing valuables out of sight does you no good when a crooked valet or a determined thief has easy access to every inch of your car.

And believe me, if something untoward does happen, every one of those friendly, nameless, faceless strangers will go to the highest court (or their graves) denying any responsibility for your loss. My head is spinning from the Ping-Pong game of blame going on right now between the hotel and valet concession involved in my own loss.

The owner of the valet service told me that his insurance agent wondered if we had planned our own car's theft, presumably to collect the insurance payment. I patiently explained, through gritted teeth, that if this were so, we probably wouldn't have flown my wife's parents and grandparents and my best man to Hawaii for the event. Nice guy.

*

Our case made the local news, thanks to the Visitors Aloha Society of Hawaii, which assists tourists in trouble. The Honolulu Police Department did find the thief and some of our belongings about five days after the fact--a rare occurrence helped in no small part by all the TV coverage. The HPD ("Book 'em, Danno!") informed us that there are more than 400 auto thefts every month in Honolulu alone--not a few of them performed by thieves eyeing a slow-moving valet or perhaps even working in cahoots with the valet service.

Don't be an easy mark. Don't make it easier for the thieves than it already is.

*

Steve Parker is the auto expert on KCBS-TV Channel 2 News and host of "The Car Nut," a call-in program airing Sundays from 7 to 9 a.m. on KXTA-AM (1150). Direct questions and comments to his Web site at http://www.steveparker.com.

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