Gotham Gazette

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Albany: Don’t Tie Our Hands Behind Our Back When It Comes to Fighting Auto Theft and Fraud

On the beat (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)

With crime continuing to rise in many parts of the state, those of us in law enforcement are doing everything we can to keep people and property safe and secure. And we’ve seen some recent success, especially around reducing gun violence.

But on Long Island, in New York City, and elsewhere, much of the increase is being driven by property crimes, like auto theft.

And yet, despite this worrisome increase, our elected officials in Albany are considering a proposal in the state budget that would gut an important auto-theft-prevention regulation that’s been on the books since the late 1970s and make it harder for those of us in law enforcement to do our jobs.

When an owner of a used car is seeking both collision and comprehensive insurance for the first time, Regulation 79 requires a vehicle photo inspection to be completed within 14 days of the effective date of the insurance coverage. This requirement, for about 8% of used vehicles, covers the small subset that are most likely to be involved in theft or fraud according to data kept by the entity responsible for maintaining the Regulation 79 database. (When the owner is renewing insurance or buying a new vehicle, there is no need to have the car photographed before getting insurance.)

If a car is covered by the Regulation, the owner takes it to one of 3,500 authorized inspection centers around the state. There, a professional will take several photos of the vehicle, including of the VIN sticker, and upload them to the central database to demonstrate that there is no pre-existing damage and the VIN sticker has not been tampered with. This ensures that the car is not stolen nor does it have pre-existing damage that the owner can later claim is new damage, thus committing insurance fraud.

By narrowly targeting the vehicles that are most likely to be stolen or involved in insurance fraud, the regulation helps my colleagues and I fight fraud and theft. If suspicious cars turn up in the database, they are flagged. In 2013, a major auto theft ring was brought down in this way. And if the photos show pre-existing damage, insurers know not to pay out claims for the damage. This in turn means that auto insurance premiums are lower for everyone.

A similar bill that made inspections optional was passed in Albany last year and Governor Hochul wisely vetoed it, observing that the program has “driven down cases of insurance fraud and helped keep rates down for consumers.” Her veto memo said gutting the program would most harm “customers in urban areas who already pay high insurance rates” and who “would likely see their insurance rates increase as a result.”

Indeed, this program has been proven to work. When it was first implemented - during a time of rampant crime - auto theft declined by 7% in New York while increasing in neighboring states. 

Proponents of the change in the insurance industry argue that it’s too difficult for customers to get their cars inspected within the two-week grace period. If that’s the case, then maybe the program should be tweaked, as it has been five times in the past. But if we get rid of this program entirely, fraud and theft will increase - driving up costs for people who play by the rules.

When Massachusetts eliminated its program, inspections dropped by about 87%, and collision claims climbed about 55% with premiums spiking by 61%, according to data from CARCO Group, which conducts inspections, and Verisk, another company involved in this work. It wasn’t that Massachusetts residents suddenly became worse drivers, it’s that criminals know how to commit crimes when nobody's looking.

New York shouldn’t follow Massachusetts’ lead. Our program has worked well to protect New York’s consumers. If it needs a tweak so that it’s more user-friendly, that’s fine. But if it’s eliminated, New Yorkers will pay the price.

John Becker is President of the Suffolk County Deputy Sheriffs PBA.

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Tags: policing

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