Earlier this week, I noticed a woman in uniform going around to all the cars parked on my street with a pad of some sort. She'd go from car to car, looking inside the windows before scribbling down some things on her pad, tearing off a ticket and sticking it under the front windshield whiper.
My first thought was that she was giving out parking tickets, but then I remembered that it's free parking along my street. I didn't want to get caught snooping by this Dutch official, so I figured that I'd do a round at the dog park with Turner (which is what I was supposed to be doing anyway) and check the cars on our way back to the apartment.
Well, I forgot... as usual.
But today while we were out on our morning walk, I saw one of the tickets on the ground. It was raining and the paper was muddy and gross, so I let the opportunity pass hoping there would be a car or two with the notice still on it. And there was.
It was sopping wet, but on the front was a message in English, German and French with a yellow car at the bottom containing the words "Auto leeg? Doe 't liever zelf!" (Car empty? Better to do it yourself!) The multi-lingual warning lets you know (unless you can't read English, German or French) that this paper is not a ticket, but a warning to you about auto theft.
On the back it looks more like a parking ticket, but upon closer inspection, you can see that it is... an inspection. The official inspection of vehicles includes looking inside each one to see if there is anything visible inside and mark how well each vehicle owner did. I am pleased to say that the person I yanked the ticket from got a Prima! for having the car locked and all valuables hidden from site.
Those less fortunate were graded Fout! either for leaving the car unlocked or having valuable items lying in view (there's even a blank here for the Controleur to list those items). The Controleur is then supposed to write their name and date of inspection on the bottom, which this one failed to do. Unfortunately there's no such box for me to check to let her know.
To be honest, I think this is a really good idea and I wish more cities would do it... and that Utrecht had started doing it long ago. Since my husband bought his car in the summer of 2007, we've had windows broken, mirrors snatched, and even the hood ornament stolen. It seems that the big thing is for thieves to steal things from, on, and in the car -- or even the car itself -- and then sell the items. Usually on Marktplaats, the Dutch Ebay.
Friends of ours had their BMW stolen over the summer and were recently contacted by a man who was desperate to find out whether they had a BMW stolen from them. He apparently bought it, did thousands of euros worth of renovations on it and then, on a whim, searched the license plate number only to find that the car was registered to our friends and had been reported as stolen.
Early this past fall, our side-view mirrors were torn off. Just the actual glass. When we put in an order for new mirrors at the Mercedes dealer, the guy said they were fresh out of all Mercedes parts due to similar requests from other Mercedes owners. It seems that some sort of auto show was happening the following weekend and people were going around yanking parts off of Mercedes cars to sell at said auto show. The demand to replace the stolen parts had cleared the mechanics in the area out of Mercedes parts altogether.
I remember before the summer stopping to get groceries. I walked by a parked car and happened to notice a sign displayed on the driver's seat saying "Auto leeg." I thought about finding out where to buy one, but figured we're probably safer continuing to leave the glove compartment and center console open when we leave the car. After all, we've had no break-ins since we started doing that.
It's sad that these measures have to be taken, but I guess that's a fact of life... especially when you live in a large city. Or anywhere for that matter. So I thought I'd leave some practical tips on keeping yourself safe from theft in any situation.
- Make sure your purse is zipped, buttoned, clasped, etc. and kept firmly under your arm at all times.
- Avoid wearing backpacks as they can be easily sifted through without your realizing it.
- Never keep all of your money in one place and never carry more than 50-100 on you at a time (even 100 is pushing it).
- Keep all of your identification items in different places. If your credit cards, passport, social security or BSN number, insurance card, and driver's license are all kept in your wallet, once that wallet is stolen you can easily become a victim of identity theft. Use pockets in your agenda, passport holder, wallet, and other organizers and divide your identification among them.
- Do not keep any written passwords or pin codes with you.
- Make sure your car is locked and windows are rolled up at all times.
- Place all valuables in your trunk or tuck them out of sight. Jackets, laptops, bags, purses, wallets, navigational systems, mobile phones are all items that make the break-in worth it for the thief.
- Leave your glove compartment and center console open to show that there is nothing of value hidden in them.
- Make sure the door to your home is always pulled tightly shut and locked. Do the same with all windows. Do not leave any spare keys lying about outside of your home.
- Get a heavy-duty lock for your bike and make sure you lock it to something solid (poles have been known to be dug up in order to free the bicycle locked to it).
- Do not thread the lock through the wheel of your bike or you will come back to find the wheel safe and sound but the rest of your bike missing.
- Be doubly safe and use a chain and rear lock.
- Never walk or cycle alone at night.
- Stay in well-lit areas with lots people in sight.
- Keep out of alleys and dark corners.
- Report any incidents immediately.
The last thing I want you to think is that Utrecht (or the Netherlands in general for that matter) is an unsafe place. In fact, I feel safer here than I did in most of the places I've lived in. Nor do I want you to think that you always have to be on guard for thieves and deliquents. But it is always a good idea, no matter where you are, to be aware and be safe.
For more information on Auto Leeg? and other safety initiatives, check out Utrecht Veilig: Dat doen we samen.