It’s almost like a plot from “Gone in 60 Seconds” but in real life. This past April 15 the car sharing company Car2Go owned by Daimler AG noticed a surge in rentals of Mercedes CLA sedans and GLA sport utility vehicles in Chicago. The rentals were lasting longer that than Car2Go’s average 90-minute ride—in fact, many of the Benzes weren’t being returned at all. Instead, employees at Car2Go headquarters in Austin watched on a digital map as dozens of their vehicles congregated on a few blocks in West Chicago, in a neighborhood right outside the company’s coverage area.
The company sent employees to retrieve the vehicles, only to find that a group of thieves had claimed them as their own. Some blocked the vehicles in to prevent repossession; others threatened the company’s employees, according to someone with knowledge of the situation who spoke on condition of anonymity to Bloomberg.
Car2Go has the ability to remotely disable vehicles, but the confusing situation made it tough to know which ones to target in time to do much good. Previously unreported accounts of the few days that followed from people with knowledge of the thefts, along with police reports and social media posts, offer a surreal lesson in the risks of businesses built on smartphone-enabled car-sharing.
The company began to notice strange traffic, then ads on Facebook began pitching Chicagoans on short-term Mercedes rentals. Photos and videos of joyrides, with a heavy dose of the laughing-so-hard-I’m-crying emoji began showing up. People posted messages bragging about their new Mercedes, asking where they could get one, or lamenting that they were missing out. “It was crazy. Every half-mile you’ll see a CLA or GLA Mercedes,” says a neighborhood resident who gave his name only as Justin because he was discussing a crime. “Some were totaled, some were abandoned. There were even some that were gutted out.”
Car2Go contacted the Chicago Police Department and suspended service in Chicago altogether since it couldn’t figure out how to distinguish legitimate customers from the group of thieves. A company spokesperson says about 75 cars in total were compromised. All were eventually recovered, though some only after being stripped of doors, seats, and other parts.’
The company had decided to stop conducting manual background checks on all of its users in April to attract new users.