Last summer Emad Wassef walked out of a Target store in Orange County, California, to find a big space where his 2003 Lincoln Navigator had been. The 38-year-old truck driver and former reserve Los Angeles police officer did what anyone would do: He reported the theft to the cops and called his insurance company.
Two weeks later, the black SUV turned up near the Mexico border, minus its stereo, airbags, DVD player, and door panels. Wassef assumed he had a straightforward claim for around $25,000. His insurer, Chicago-based Unitrin Direct, disagreed.
Wassef’s Navigator, like half of all late-model domestic cars on the road today, is equipped with a transponder antitheft system: The ignition key is embedded with a tiny computer chip that sends a unique radio signal to the vehicle’s onboard computer. Without the signal, the car won’t start. And Wassef still had both of his keys.
The insurance company sent a forensic examiner to check out the disemboweled SUV in an impound lot. The ignition lock, mounted on the steering column, had been forcibly rotated, probably with a screwdriver. The locking lug on the steering wheel, which keeps it from being turned when the truck is not in gear, had also been damaged. But the transponder system was intact. The car could have been shifted and steered, the investigator concluded, but the engine couldn’t have been turned on. “Since you reportedly can account for all the vehicle keys, the forensic information suggests that the loss did not occur as reported,” the company wrote to Wassef, denying his claim. The barely hidden subtext: Wassef was lying.