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How a San Francisco man got his stolen car back

Dylan Harris stands near his 2013 Mazda CX-5 that he tracked down less than 30 minutes after he realized it was stolen from his Alamo Square neighborhood. | Source: Joel Umanzor/The Standard

A San Francisco man whose car was stolen in the middle of the night Wednesday managed to track down the vehicle using his car insurance app and retrieve the stolen vehicle the following morning within half an hour of noticing it was gone.

Dylan Harris of Alamo Square was walking around the neighborhood Wednesday morning when he realized his 2013 Mazda CX-5 wasn’t parked where he’d left it the night before. In its place was broken windshield glass—a familiar sight in an area that’s become one of the city’s hot spots for car break-ins. 

Since moving to San Francisco from Dallas 11 years ago, Harris has often heard of the city’s reputation as a car theft and burglary mecca.

“I was not surprised when it finally happened to me,” he said. “I kind of knew that someday the window may be broken but didn’t really think my car would be stolen.”

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But then almost immediately, Harris realized he could track his phone using his app from MetroMile, a San Francisco-based digital pay-per-mile car insurance company that tracks a car’s location and charges a rate based on how much it’s driven.

“I opened the app and found it was in Mission Bay,” he said, adding that the person who stole it drove it all night before parking. “I rode my bike down there and picked it up.”

MetroMile’s parent company, Lemonade, has been contacted for comment on the incident.

Before picking up his car, Harris didn’t consult with the San Francisco Police Department and said officers were confused about why he wanted to report a stolen car that was already back in his possession.

He said his driver’s side window had been smashed, but there wasn’t any other damage, just a mess of marijuana paraphernalia and blunt wraps inside.

Harris spoke with The Standard on Thursday morning, just after finishing up all the paperwork connected with reporting the theft at the SFPD Northern District Station on Fillmore Street. 

When The Standard asked the police whether they would encourage other car theft victims to follow Harris’ example and try to retrieve their cars themselves, an SFPD spokesperson advised caution.

“If a vehicle owner locates their stolen vehicle prior to the police locating it, we highly recommend that they alert us to the vehicle’s location and do not move the car prior to reporting it recovered,” Sgt. Kathryn Winters wrote in an email. “Additionally, if they locate the vehicle occupied, they should not approach the vehicle or suspects and should call law enforcement immediately.”

There were 274 motor vehicle theft reports in the Western Addition neighborhood, which includes Alamo Square, in the 12 months leading up to Oct. 21 compared with 219 during the same period the previous year, according to police data. 

READ MORE: Why Is San Francisco Called Bip City?

Citywide, the problem has also gotten worse in recent years. The number of car thefts has risen from 60 incidents per 10,000 residents in 2019 to 101 incidents this year.

Harris said the device MetroMile uses to track mileage was attached to a port inside his car. It’s not noticeable unless you know where to look for it. He added that the company covered the cost of replacing his car’s window and re-keying the locks.

Harris is cycling enthusiast who started the website He said he tries to avoid driving whenever he can and rents out his vehicle on the car-sharing site Turo as an added income stream.

He said the incident hasn’t changed his opinion of San Francisco.

“I hope that it is a one-off thing, and I’m going to take the precautions I can to prevent it,” he said. “But I think there’s not much more I can do.”