Technology How technology cracked the case of a missing Camry

When Tarikh Campbell stepped out of his boyhood home in Teaneck, N.J., last month, the parking space where he’d left his 2020 Toyota Camry was a patch of empty pavement. His Avis rental car had apparently been stolen.

Campbell, an East Boston resident and program manager for workplace inclusion at Microsoft in Cambridge, didn’t get much help from Avis, or the local police. So he set about to figure out the car’s fate himself, with a welcome assist from some digital gadgets that just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

When he discovered the theft on the night of Aug. 14, “I was freaked out, like, rubbing my eyes,” said Campbell. He’d gone to Teaneck in mid-August for a relaxing weekend visit and had planned to spend Saturday night hanging out with friends. Instead, he found himself filing a stolen car report with the Teaneck police.

The next morning, he took a Lyft to the Avis office near the Newark airport. As he handed over the keys to the missing car, a customer service worker told Campbell that he would be charged daily rental fees. The worker said that the car didn’t contain a GPS tracker, so Avis couldn’t help find it. And the worker added, “If we don’t find the car, you’re going to be liable for it,” Campbell recalled. “I was pretty stressed out about that.”

Campbell filed a claim with his personal auto insurance company, but he was warned that the payout might not cover the full cost of the rental car, which was newer than his own vehicle. In addition, he could expect to pay higher insurance premiums going forward. Insured or not, the loss of the car could cost him dearly.

After flying home to Boston, Campbell remembered something he’d left behind in the car: his E-ZPass transponder for making automatic payments for road tolls. Realizing that the E-ZPass billing system automatically tracks a vehicle’s movements along toll roads, he logged on to his account, and found that the missing Camry had indeed traveled on the New Jersey Turnpike that Saturday night. “It got off the highway at the Newark airport exit,” said Campbell.

The next break in the case came from Campbell’s aunt, whom he’d visited during the trip and who lived three doors down from Campbell’s parents. The aunt had installed a video surveillance camera on her porch, which had a good view down the street. Recorded video from the camera showed a tow truck scooping up the vehicle and carting it away.

My aunt has a home security system that’s constantly recording the area from her front door to the street. She zeroed in on the time window when the car must have been taken. Low and behold, a large red tow truck drives straight to where the car was parked….and stops. pic.twitter.com/SVOlKk8ObY

— Tarikh Campbell (@tarikhcampbell) August 20, 2021

But the car was legally parked. Who would have towed it? Car thieves?

“We weren’t entertaining the idea that there was some organized crime group with tow trucks,” said Campbell. “This would most likely be done by Avis.” Combined with the location data from the E-ZPass, it was an open-and-shut case.

When Campbell reported the car missing, the Avis worker had said the company couldn’t track the car, but he must have been wrong. The company had found the vehicle in Teaneck and hauled it away. And sure enough, Campbell’s Avis smartphone app now listed the car as having been returned, 90 minutes after his plane landed back in Boston.

Case closed? Not quite. Campbell wanted reimbursement from Avis for his lost weekend, and the return of some personal items he’d left in the car. But phone calls to customer service left him frustrated. The company wouldn’t even give him a direct phone number to the Newark rental office.

“I was even hung up on at times by customer service agents,” Campbell said.

I’ve made tons of calls, wasting hours trying to connect directly with the Newark branch. I’ve been given misleading information on how to reach it and even been hung up on by customer service reps. The local number doesn’t even directly connect to any employees or managers there pic.twitter.com/CItMeg1Tmz

— Tarikh Campbell (@tarikhcampbell) August 20, 2021

Then he unleashed the ultimate weapon: Twitter. On Aug. 20, he cranked out a lengthy thread of tweets about his misadventure, complete with images of the E-Z Pass record and his aunt’s surveillance video. The thread went viral, with thousands of likes from sympathetic readers. Avis began to pay attention. The company agreed to a full refund, and a return of his possessions. And it finally revealed what had happened.

TRAVELER BEWARE! Have you ever had a rental car company steal their car back from you? Well this just happened to me. I’m not usually one to take to Twitter in this way. I’m barely ever here. But I feel this is my only option short of taking legal action. So here goes

— Tarikh Campbell (@tarikhcampbell) August 20, 2021

“Our internal findings indicate there was an incorrect tow triggered by an administrative error on a previous rental,” said an e-mail from an Avis spokesperson. “Mistaken tows occur infrequently but we are taking steps to prevent situations like this from occurring at all in the future.”

Like it or not, our lives are now under near-constant electronic surveillance, usually for the benefit of some far-off faceless corporation. But sometimes the digital spies are on our side.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on

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