The expensive headlights in Porsches are especially easy to pry out, and thieves are going after them, police and repair shops say.
By SUSANNAH A. NESMITH, The Miami Herald
The first thing Scott Rhodenizer does every morning is check to see whether the headlights on his car are still there.
Last Saturday, Rhodenizer woke up to a familiar and frustrating sight -- the empty eye sockets of his black 1999 Porsche Carrera. The lights had been swiped for the second time in as many months.
"Now they know where I live," he said. "I'm going to have to turn my [car] lease in. It's no good for me to have that car."
For Porsche drivers, the story is a familiar one. Criminals, ever on the cutting edge, have started what could be a national epidemic: stealing headlights from Porsches.
Coral Gables police have investigated more than 60 thefts in little more than a year -- and some owners have been hit three or four times. Rhodenizer's car was one of eight hit in the first five days of this year.
While regional figures were not available, Countach repair manager Abraham Echeverry said he gets as many as 10 blinded Porsches a week at his Coral Gables shop.
Bob Varela of Wellington, who has been in the Porsche business for more than 30 years, has heard about similar thefts "all over the country."
"It is more prevalent in Dade, not as much in Broward and somewhat in Palm Beach, but it is everywhere," said Varela, president of the Southeast U.S. chapter of the Porsche Owners Club and owner of Foreign Affairs Motorsports in Deerfield Beach.
The headlights, called high-intensity discharge, or HID, throw a bluish light on the street and are the rage with car enthusiasts who soup up less expensive cars such as Honda Civics and Acura Integras.
The lights cost $1,400 or more when new, but the replacement and repair costs after a thief pries them out with a crowbar can reach $7,000.
"The problem is, eventually, the way the insurance industry is, it turns into all of us paying more," Coral Gables police Sgt. Ed Hudak said. He has mounted a special investigation into the thefts, arresting six people so far. Miami police have arrested two others.
The lights themselves don't fit anything but Porsches, but thieves are removing the bulbs and a transformer that makes them so bright and installing them in headlamp casings for other cars. "When you see a Chevy Impala with these lights, you know they didn't come with it," Hudak said.
Porsche's North American headquarters in Atlanta said it only recently began to hear about the problem.
Porsche spokesman Bob Carlson said removing the lights would require breaking into the car and popping open the trunk, which is in the front. But Hudak said local thieves have found a way around that.
"I don't want to kill Porsche sales, but the reality is all you need is a flathead screwdriver," Hudak said.
Miami, Key Biscayne and Pinecrest police have seen the same trend in recent months.
Hudak suspects that instead of one large, organized ring of thieves, he is chasing several small groups.
The HID lights are also standard features in other luxury cars, but repair-shop owners say the Porsche is the car of choice for Coral Gables thieves.
"They're going after the Porsche because they're easy to take out," said Oscar Sicle, owner of the European Connection. "Mercedes has [the lights], but you can die of old age trying to take them out."
The Nissan Maxima has also been a popular target for a few years. Hudak's team is investigating 33 thefts from Maximas and other high-end cars. Nissan officials said that when they heard about the problem with Maximas, they set up a program to help police catch the criminals and help owners discourage them. The company also changed the design on the 2004 models to make it harder to pry the lights out.
A caller to Nissan's customer service is told to press 1 on the phone dial if headlights were stolen.
Kenneth Gorin, co-owner and president of The Collection luxury-car dealership, said Porsche's new SUV, the Cayenne, has bolts holding the lights in tightly.
"I don't think really Porsche is at fault in their design," Gorin said. 'Anytime you need to replace something and the repair shop says, `Oh, it's going to take four hours to replace this,' you'd say what kind of ridiculous design is this?"
Unfortunately for the new Cayenne buyers, Countach's Echeverry said he has already seen several of the new SUVs robbed of their headlights.
"We've had six or eight of them already," he said. "Those are bolted on."
Echeverry said the thieves seem to be getting more adept. "The first cars, they would demolish the fender. Now they seem to know how to pop them out without doing too much damage."
Detective Chris Rios, a Miami police officer and owner of a Porsche 911, decided not to wait for a design change.
"I took out the $4,000 headlights on my car and put in [older] headlights," he explained. "I kind of downgraded the headlights on my car to avoid the theft and damage."
Hudak said he knows one Key Biscayne Porsche owner who did that and even put a sticker on the lenses announcing that the lights were not high intensity. Thieves pried them off, anyway, then dumped them.
"These guys can't read," Hudak said.