You may have been in this situation before: You parked your car for a few hours, came back to the parking spot and couldn't find your car. You're hoping the car was towed, but there's a chance it was stolen. What do you do?

Even the most cautious car owners can be victims of car theft. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a motor vehicle is stolen every 41 seconds in the U.S.

If your car is stolen, take action to retrieve your vehicle or get reimbursed by insurance. Here's what to do.

More: What to do if your car is towed

What do you do when your car is stolen?

Call the police. You'll want to file a stolen-vehicle report. Each piece of information you provide in the report can be used by the police in the investigation process. After you fill out the police report, get a copy for yourself. If you need to file an insurance claim, you'll need a copy of the theft report.

File a stolen car report. Provide the following information:

  • Vehicle identification number
    • You can locate the VIN on several documents, including your vehicle registration, insurance ID card, insurance dedications page or vehicle title. Unfortunately some of these may be in your stolen car.
    • Vehicle make and model
    • Where you last saw the vehicle
    • What type of vehicle-tracking device you have, if applicable

Call your auto insurance company. If you have comprehensive insurance and your car is not recovered, you will receive reimbursement for your stolen car.

Call your insurance company within 24 hours of the theft. Your insurer might investigate the claim. Don't be insulted if they do; the driver is usually the first suspect in car-theft cases. After that a waiting period will begin. This gives time to see if the vehicle is found before your insurer pays the claim. The waiting time can vary, so ask your insurer how long its waiting period is.

Inform your lender or leasing company. If you have a car loan or lease, let the company know the car has been stolen.

Compare: Car insurance quotes

Even if you don't have comprehensive auto insurance, you should still notify your insurer when your car is stolen. If the car thief damages property or injures someone while driving your car, you want your insurer to know it wasn't you.

Report any stolen possessions. Make sure you report any stolen possessions to the police as well. An iPad, laptop or other items that were taken when your car got stolen will be covered by your renters or homeowners insurance policy. But check your deductible first. If your home or renters insurance deductible is $500, it's not worth making a claim against your policy if the stolen items total less.

Rent a replacement car. If you have rental reimbursement coverage, your insurer may cover a rental car for your temporary use.

Making an insurance claim for car theft

If you have comprehensive insurance and your car is not recovered, your insurer will base your claim payment on the value of your car at the time it was stolen, minus your deductible amount. You can get an estimate of your car's current value at sites like NADAGuides.com.

If your vehicle is found but damaged, your comprehensive insurance will cover the damage costs, minus your deductible amount.

If you did not buy comprehensive insurance, you'll have to buy another car with your own money.

Tips for preventing car theft

Here are some simple ways to help avoid car theft:

  • Keep windows rolled up and doors locked when you park.
  • Don't leave a set of keys in the car.
  • Don't keep the car running if you are not sitting in it.
  • Park in well-lit, safe areas.
  • Hide valuable items that might lure thieves.
  • Install a GPS tracking system so the police can track down your stolen vehicle.