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Flashy rims call out to thieves

For most drivers, the custom accessories are a fashion statement. But as sales of the expensive add-ons rise, so have thefts involving them.

July 23, 2003|Jeanne Wright | Special to The Times

Those flashy custom rims that literally add spin and dazzle to your vehicle have become the pinnacle of motoring chic for some drivers. The popularity of these expensive eye-catching rims -- especially those that keep twirling even when the vehicle is stopped -- has grown tremendously.

But there's a downside to this extravagant fad. With prices for custom rims ranging from $150 apiece to more than $15,000 for a set of super-luxury rims, these customized accessories have become magnets for thieves.

Auto thefts, carjackings and even some deaths have occurred when thieves go after vehicles sporting these prominent add-ons.

"It's like the folks who used to get mugged for their [pricey] tennis shoes," says Jim Spoonhour, vice president for market research at Specialty Equipment Market Assn.

Although there are no statistics on the number of crimes nationwide related to rim thefts, the National Insurance Crime Bureau in Chicago says the lure of fancy rims has probably been a factor contributing to a recent increase in auto thefts in the U.S.

In April, a Florida police officer was killed in Broward County when he tried to stop two men from swiping designer rims off a new Cadillac Escalade SUV.

Earlier this year, a college student was shot to death in Sacramento when he attempted to steal high-end wheels and rims from a machine shop.

Closer to home, thieves stole five Cadillac Escalade SUVs from the lot of a dealership in Laguna Niguel this spring. The next day, four of the luxury vehicles were found and were missing only their 22-inch custom wheels and tires.

Last month, a Temecula man was convicted of first-degree murder in the 1999 shooting death of a Riverside Community College student during a carjacking attempt to steal rims.

Nationally, the sales of custom rims increased to $3.2 billion last year from about $1.2 billion a decade ago, said Rosemarie Kitchin, spokeswoman for the Specialty Equipment Market Assn. in Diamond Bar.

"It's a fashion statement," Kitchin said. "Changing the rims on your vehicle is one of the most visible things you can do to make a personal statement" while on the road.

For some who customize their vehicles, a souped-up auto with a set of flashy rims may be the "the most expensive things they have in life," said Anaheim police Lt. Joe Vargas.

"It's an expression of who they are and boosts their self-esteem," Vargas added.

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Sgt. Tim Glover of the Task Force for Regional Auto Theft Prevention (TRAP), said, "I've seen them on cars that aren't worth the money the wheels cost.... By the time they've put on all the aftermarket additions, these guys have probably added on three times the original price of the car."

Despite some recent crimes involving rim theft in California and nationwide, Glover said his office had not handled any "organized theft ring or notable incident where someone was shot" for their rims.

If motorists want to invest in expensive rims, they need to be aware that these accessories may attract thieves, warned Dave Cavano of the Automobile Club of Southern California. If you park a vehicle that is outfitted with thousands of dollars worth of rims on the street, "you are basically advertising 'come take me' to thieves," Cavano said.

Unfortunately, the only way to try to keep your vehicle safe is to "hide it or garage it in a secure and low-visibility area," Cavano added.

He also noted that if you add expensive equipment and accessories to a vehicle, you must disclose it to your insurance company. If your expensive rims get stolen, you could be out thousands of dollars if you've failed to inform your insurer.

Robert Giuffre of Orange was recently searching for custom rims at Wheel Warehouse in Anaheim for his new Ford Expedition.

"They look nice and add a lot of aesthetic value to the vehicle," said Guiffre, who teaches high school in Lakewood.

Although his godson is encouraging him to buy the spinners, Guiffre said they're too expensive. Furthermore, he doesn't want to become a victim of theft.

"If I bought spinners and left the vehicle at school, they wouldn't be on my car for long," he said.

*

Jeanne Wright responds in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: jeanrite@aol.com.

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