MACON, Ga. — Kathleen Zini and her family were left holding the key to their U-Haul, but nothing else from their stolen rental truck.
“Everything we own just gone like that overnight,” the young mother told The Reveal investigators.
The family was moving from Florida to Alabama just before Christmas when the parents and their three young children stopped for the night at a Macon hotel. All of their household belongings were locked inside the 26-foot U-Haul in the hotel’s parking lot.
They chose Macon because they feared the crime that comes with a big city like Atlanta. But the crime came to them while they were sleeping, anyway.
The next morning, Zini said, “my husband’s looking out the window and he said, ‘the U-Haul’s gone.’”
PREVIOUS INVESTIGATIONS: Waste deposited into Georgia water utility draws concerns for environmental impact
The hotel’s surveillance video shows three men walking toward the truck around 11:23 p.m. In a matter of minutes, the thieves were able to start the truck without the keys and drive off with the entire truck.
The closing on their first home wouldn’t take place until two days later, so they had no insurance other than U-Haul’s policy.
U-Haul’s advertised SafeMove cargo insurance covers “collision, fire, windstorm or overturn,” but the fine print shows it does not cover, “theft, burglary or robbery of cargo.” There’s no option to buy theft protection from U-Haul other than coverage for the stolen truck itself.
“It wasn’t just a vehicle stolen." Zini said. "It was our entire house, our entire livelihood, our whole lives, our memories from our children’s birth, everything that we had was stolen."
Their rented U-Haul was found days later abandoned off I-20 in DeKalb County. It was empty, except for an upright piano and some of the children’s toys, according to photos provided by Zini.
“The first thing we did was we had to buy our kids pajamas and just clothes, because all we had was an overnight bag," she said. "And then, our bank accounts were compromised."
The thieves found a checkbook inside one of the boxes.
Someone in the Atlanta area tried cashing three stolen checks for $700 to $900 each. The bank covered the losses, but the family struggled to rebuild their lives from scratch with a compromised bank account.
Atlanta theft ring?
The Bibb County Sheriff’s Office in Macon told us it is investigating five cases, and they provided four incident reports from thefts in 2020 and 2021.
Investigators told us all of them were found abandoned in or around Atlanta, 80 miles to the north.
Investigators said they believe the cases are related, and they suspect an organized ring from Atlanta targeting hotel parking lots in Macon and possibly other cities.
“They all appear to have the same description, and when they leave the area, they all end up in the Atlanta area,” investigator Steven Fields from the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office told 11Alive.
DeKalb County Police gave us 27 incident reports for stolen or recovered rental trucks. Of those, 21 were U-Haul vehicles. Two others were unidentified rental trucks. Two more were Penske vehicles, one was a Budget truck, and the last item was a U-Haul trailer.
Atlanta Police have at least 13 cases of stolen or recovered U-Hauls since 2019, according to incident reports.
Several of the cases in Atlanta and DeKalb were empty trucks stolen directly from U-Haul lots, while others involved the theft of families’ entire household belongings. At least four of the five Macon cases involved thefts of loaded 26-foot U-Haul moving trucks.
An Atlanta Police body camera recording from December 2020 shows a patrol officer dusting for prints on an abandoned U-Haul. It had been reported stolen from a Macon hotel parking lot. The officer wrote in his report that he ran the plate because of a “recent increase in U-Haul thefts.”
There were no usable prints recovered.
The Zinis’ U-Haul was not dusted for prints by Macon investigators. Investigator Fields told 11Alive that police were not called when U-Haul recovered the vehicle in DeKalb County.
We asked for the incident report from the recovery off I-20, but DeKalb Police said there were no records responsive to our request.
U-Haul told us, “if U-Haul personnel identifies stolen or abandoned equipment and can recover that equipment, we must contact the customer and the police.”
On another case last November, an Atlanta Police officer wrote, “a U-Haul private recovery team recovered this U-Haul truck 2 days” prior to his investigation.
Investigator Fields told us that he learned U-Haul had recovered the Zinis’ rental truck directly from Kathleen Zini. U-Haul “had actually contacted her and she contacted us,” Fields said.
He told us that any prints from the vehicle would be worthless because other people had been through the vehicle, and the thieves sometimes wear gloves.
In another case of a recovered U-Haul last October, an Atlanta officer reported “no prints were taken due to U-Haul workers entering the cab before I arrived on scene.”
We asked U-Haul to comment on what steps the company took to help Kathleen Zini and her family.
"U-Haul notified the customer referenced in your inquiry upon finding their stolen moving truck. U-Haul sympathizes with any customer who is a victim of theft. In addition to the loss of the customer’s belongings, the truck was damaged and the catalytic converter was stolen. The Company, under no obligation to do so, refunded in full the customer’s rental charges ($846.39) as a measure of goodwill and compassion," the company wrote.
Zini confirmed she received the refund, "after the issue had to be escalated several times. They were all very rude whenever I called, and they certainly weren’t quick or eager to give a refund," she said.
License plate is ‘crucial’
Kathleen Zini and her family still had the key to their stolen U-Haul, but no license plate number to give to responding deputies. The contract was still in the vehicle.
U-Haul keys have a tag with only proprietary serial numbers on it. Those numbers are used by U-Haul for inventory management. The license plate number is not on the tag attached to the key.
The initial police report for the Zinis’ stolen U-Haul has only that inventory number. Bibb County deputies were not able to find a license plate number in those first hours after the theft.
U-Haul told us the inventory number "is the most relevant number to include on a small space like a key tag for U-Haul purposes. As the license number is included on customer contracts (both printed and emailed versions), manually adding more numbers to more than 176,000 key tags could potentially lead to more human error and confusion than benefit."
Investigator Fields told us he called the Main U-Haul number: 1-800-GO-UHAUL. It's the only one printed on the key. He was told by a customer service representative that he would need to speak to U-Haul’s legal department to get the license plate number.
Investigator Fields told us he asked for a supervisor, and the supervisor gave him the Arizona license plate number. The investigator said the license plate is “crucial” for tracking down a stolen vehicle.
“There are cameras up the I-75 corridor, I-16 corridor," he said. "If we can get that tag number to some of these agencies, they’ll have people on the interstate that can have license plate readers. We can automatically pick them up."
U-Haul told us, “Customer Care agents and store personnel cannot give out this information over the phone. Verification of law enforcement is needed. This information needs to come from our Equipment Recovery team via the number, website or emails provided.”
U-Haul is part of an industry website, truckrentalsecurity.com. On the U-Haul page, there are dedicated hotline numbers and emails for reporting stolen or recovered rental vehicles and for law enforcement requests.
Body camera recordings from Atlanta Police show when an officer called one of those numbers, they were immediately connected to someone who could help them, but in some cases officers are unaware those hotlines exist.
U-Haul pointed out that a Google search for "U-Haul police number" gives the Truck Rental Security page as the first result and the U-Haul contact page as the second result. We saw the same thing on a desktop web browser, but the results were ordered differently when using the web browser and Google app on a phone, with the Truck Rental Security page showing up in the fourth position instead of first.
One Atlanta officer, responding to the theft of a packed U-Haul outside a Buckhead diner in 2020, spent most of his two-hour investigation just trying to get the license plate for the stolen rental truck.
“The problem is they don’t have the tag number for the U-Haul so I can’t put the U-Haul in the system as stolen,” the officer said on his body camera recording.
The body camera picked up the officer scrutinizing the U-Haul contract again and again looking for the truck’s license plate number. He said, “I don’t see the tag.”
When 11Alive rented a U-Haul for this story, we got a similar print-out. The copy of the contract given to us at the time of rental had the license plate number printed along with other numbers, but they were unlabeled.
U-Haul told us, "license plate numbers for U-Haul trucks are located under the equipment number on the customer contract. The only numbers in this boxed section of the contract are the equipment size/ID, and the license plate number. All U-Haul truck license plates are Arizona plates (with the exception of trucks in Hawaii and one other remote location). The license numbers are easy to identify, ending in AZ. This is well known by law enforcement. On the customer receipt, license plate numbers are again printed where it states 'plate' which is self-explanatory."
It was not clear to us — or to the officer investigating the U-Haul theft outside the diner — that one of the unlabeled numbers was the license plate. The word 'plate' appears only on the receipt you're given after returning the U-Haul, not on the one given at the time of rental.
The Atlanta officer had spent 25 minutes of his investigation waiting on hold with U-Haul before hanging up.
He finally got the correct plate number for the stolen U-Haul from a U-Haul customer service representative more than two hours after he first responded to the scene. Only then was he able to get a complete BOLO, or Be On The Lookout, filed with the National Crime Information Center.
By then, the thieves had a two hour head start.
The stolen rental truck and BMW were found hours later by Douglasville Police, abandoned and damaged.
U-Haul said, “if law enforcement makes the error of calling our general reservations line, they are placed in a queue with other customers/callers across the U.S. and Canada and, depending on the time of day, it may take some minutes before a Customer Care agent can address them.”
Later, in response to our questions, the company added, "if police err by calling the main sales line, they can still select '2' for Roadside Assistance, and the Roadside Assistance team will either assist officers (after hours) or send them to Equipment Recovery (during normal work hours)."
How to protect your family’s belongings
U-Haul gave us a list of safety tips:
- Always park in well-lit areas and within view of security cameras
- Do not leave keys in the truck where others can access them
- Lock doors to the truck cab and place secure locks on the rear cargo doors of your truck and/or trailer
- Place secure locks on the chains connecting your personal vehicle or U-Haul truck to your trailer so the chains cannot be easily disconnected
- Back up your U-Haul truck or trailer to a garage, wall or other solid barrier so that possessions cannot be unloaded without the equipment being moved
- Avoid leaving your equipment parked and unattended in areas of town where crime is prevalent
- Avoid loading your possessions into the truck or trailer and leaving it parked and unattended at any time, particularly overnight, if this can be helped
- Avoid lending your equipment to other parties or providing keys to someone you do not know
- Follow precise instructions for equipment pick-up and return
The Zinis told us they followed all of U-Haul's tips that applied except the suggestion that they not leave the loaded truck “parked and unattended at any time, particularly overnight.”
We asked the company “what does U-Haul suggest your customers do to accomplish this on a multi-day, interstate move?”
The company responded, "there will always be an element of risk when a customer chooses to leave a truck or trailer – or any personal vehicle filled with valuable belongings – unattended in a hotel parking lot overnight. Criminals who are brazen and cruel enough to try to steal a moving truck are also likely to assume one parked at a hotel is there under these circumstances."
U-Haul declined to tell us how many of its vehicles are stolen each year. We asked about tracking devices in the U-Hauls themselves.
The company wrote, “for security reasons, we do not share information pertaining to equipment tracking features. The reason is simple: U-Haul has no desire to inform and embolden persons who intend to commit criminal acts, and make them aware of methods and devices used to track equipment and assist law enforcement in their capture.”
The Bibb County Sheriff’s Office was not aware of any tracking devices in the U-Hauls stolen from Macon. The agency recommended renters use their own tracking devices in the U-Haul or their belongings.
Investigator Fields and his supervisors suggested taking photographs of all four sides of the U-Haul including the license plate at the time of rental. U-Hauls have different murals and graphics printed on the side. Having photographs to show responding officers the accurate description and license plate could help them catch the thieves while they’re still making their getaway.
Success stories catching criminals
We asked U-Haul for "success stories tracking down theft rings."
The company responded with this link from 2018 and a second link from 2020 referencing "some recent news specific to Georgia concerning our teams and law enforcement working to uncover insurance fraud involving U-Haul equipment, leading to prosecution of those involved."
The cases referenced were about insurance fraud, not vehicle thefts, but included 15 people arrested in Macon.
The company added, "we work with law enforcement on stings in numerous cities – wherever this type of illegal activity may be occurring. Most of the criminal 'rings' we break up are specific to accident and fraud scams. If there are specific 'theft rings' you know about, or are referencing, please kindly share that information with us."