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Car theft by instalments

Today’s thieves prefer to steal your car in instalments, writes Ken German, the former Met Police man and still a vehicle crime specialist.

Police from all around the UK have recently been busy dealing with the latest type of vehicle crimewave namely that of thieves stripping cars and stealing their valuable component parts while they are parked on the owner’s driveway, usually while they are asleep. Many such victims seen by police are reportedly traumatised when they go to their vehicles the following morning to find just the bare shell of what was their family car just a few hours earlier.

The thieves while described as both locusts and scavengers clearly know what parts they are after and appear to be more than capable of dismantling and removing parts from most vehicles in a matter of minutes as suggested by those who have subsequently reviewed their CCTV footage. Items such as body panels, dashboards, doors and bonnets, wheels and tyres interior trim, seats, steering wheels complete with air bags, electric mirrors with cameras and LED headlights have all been reported stolen by victims many of who have woken up to find their car has been partially or completely stripped.

Many will later learn that their cars are so bereft of anything valuable that they have in fact been written off by their insurance companies as beyond economical repair due to the cost of replacing stolen parts with new genuine spare parts. Not only that but victims are often denied transport for several days, will have to pay £350 to cover any policy excess, learn that their premiums would double and bizarrely learn that their car would not be reported stolen by the police because they still had it or what was left of it.

Ironically once the insurance company have taken possession and sold the shell to a new owner via an auction or salvage dealer it would almost certainly be rebuilt using second-hand spares likely ‘from a source that could readily supply them’. Particularly hit this month alone were the 21 owners of the thief’s current favourite the Land Rover Defenders each of who discovered major parts of their cars taken. Some were so heavily stripped that they were indeed subsequently written off by their insurance companies.

In West Midlands owner of a Mercedes Benz woke up to find his £20,000 car stripped of its doors, bonnet, boot lid, seats and trim. They apparently even took the wheels even though all four were fitted with lock nuts. The police who attended stated that he was one of 15 vehicles that had been attacked in one single night. The victim was shocked however to find that the crime was reported as a theft from a vehicle, and not a theft of a vehicle, and that his car would not be added to the police stolen vehicle register again because the wheelless wreck that was once a car was still parked outside his house.

Another victim a Kent housewife preparing to take her two children to the local nursery school at 9am, discovered her BMW’s driver window broken and the steering wheel and seats missing.

After reporting the theft to police she checked her CCTV and discovered that two young men had smashed the window in the early hours, and had quietly removed the steering wheel and seats in under just over 30 seconds. Her local police informed her that she was unfortunately one of 72,000 similar victims of this new epidemic of car crimes that they suggested included that of catalytic converter and steering wheel theft (for the air bags) and more recently a rapidly increasing amount of electric car batteries and cables from EV cars and motorcycles.

A Freedom of Information Act request from police forces revealed that scavenger theft had on average increased by 300pc in the last 12 months alone. Home Office research suggested that overall 140,000 car thefts went unsolved last year, 77,318 were closed without a suspect being identified and only 3.9 per cent ever led to someone being charged.

Whilst the DVLA figures state that 48,493 cars were reported stolen last year, it’s estimated that another 12’000 that were stripped by these now branded ‘locust’ thieves were not shown as stolen on the PNC because only parts of them were taken. These cars join others stolen by way of burglary in not being included in any overall theft figures.

Interestingly, several insurance companies have already shown concern at the rise of this epidemic and reported a 70pc per cent increase in this type of theft alone over the last 12 months.

‘Jay’ was until recently one of these scavenger thieves and I met him for an interview at his home after he had been involved in a nasty motorcycle accident. ‘The accident happened’ he stated ‘after I had refused to work for this particular gang who wanted me to steal parts from cars for them. They didn’t like it when I refused but I had found out I could get much more than the £250 per car they were offering at other chop shops that I knew’.

‘It’s really easy money,’ Jay suggested. ‘I usually work with another bloke and if we get caught we are not actually stealing the car just the bits from it. If we get away with the stuff and are stopped by the Bill (police) then none of the items can be identified to a particular car, so we know we are OK. Several times you lot (referring to my previous occupation – [the Met Police]) actually had to give it all back to me as they could not prove the stuff was stolen.

‘We actually visited one owner of a BMW three times in six months taking his doors bonnet, steering wheel. We took his interior trim twice and his wheels and tyres three times. I don’t do cat converters anymore it’s become too risky and the few scrappers who still take them now where I work only give you half of what they used to do.’

Jay explained that the various gangs are busy with their various other activities and have started using the young wannabees offering them money, motorcycles and drugs to do this sort of work for them. ‘It does get more serious,’ he suggested, ‘when they want you out with them to rob the cars out on the street’.

He referred in particular to incidents where models such as Porsche, Mercedes, BMW and several other top of the range cars were attacked in a line of traffic by purposely driving into them in a low speed collision.

Jay suggested that this was so that its owner did not get too suspicious and also not much damage was done. He added ‘when the car eventually stops and the driver gets out, a couple of the gang jump into it and drive it away. There is always some rough stuff and I did not want to get into any of that’.

One such incident he referred to happened in a violent attack on the owner of a late model Audi RS3 in Oldham. The men got away in the car but Greater Manchester Police (GMP) found it thanks to a tracking device activation which led them to a known chop shop. Just 40 minutes after the attack the car had been almost completely stripped.

A GMP spokesman for Operation Dynamo which is dealing with the epidemic stated that in their force area 27 cars a day were being taken every day in incidents like these. Our information is that many stolen cars are either sold piece by piece on eBay to buyers in China – or shipped whole to Europe, Africa or Asia.

At the same time officers from the adjacent Lancashire force had raided another Chop Shop and were in the process of filling six huge recovery trucks with stolen engines, gearboxes and parts from in excess of 70 stolen vehicles including Land Rovers, 4x4s and several agricultural vehicles all estimated to be worth in excess of £1m.

The global demand for car parts and materials has led to a waiting list for new cars and has caused a surge in the demand for second-hand models causing their value to increase and causing a boom in these vehicle slaughters or chop shops.

Today vehicle crime has evolved into a worldwide multi-billion pound criminal enterprise that supports the more comprehensive portfolios held by most of the national and international organised gangs. This fairly easy way of making a dishonest living has gradually over the years become more complicated not only for the criminals but the police mainly due to the advancement in vehicle technology and security.

Huge efforts have been made by the policy makers, manufacturers, police and those in the commercial world offering anti theft procedures and devices have all so far been up to the crime prevention challenge but it would also be fair to say that that so to have the thieves who always appear to be able to speedily counter these methods.

For instance the well publicised relay system used by thieves to steal keyless cars is now believed to be responsible for the theft of 94pc of such models. This very convenient way of stealing cars actually only allows thieves to get away from the scene in the stolen car and drive it to a pre-determined location.

Once the engine has been turned off however then the key again would be needed to move it, which is not always possible which is why most of them will be quickly stripped into saleable parts.

Ironically large quantities of these stolen vehicles that were loaded straight into shipping containers destined for mainly the Middle East and Africa still languish on docksides unable to be moved. This has resulted in several entrepreneurs using electronics experts to create yet another gadget that can overcome this problem which will soon be seen as an ancillary to the current relay system used in keyless thefts.

Instruments of theft like the relay system, which originated in Eastern Europe with a genuine purpose, have in fact been on sale to the criminal world since 2012, albeit then for sums in excess of 10,000 euros.

Today copies and replicas of this device in its various forms are traded here in the UK for as little as £200 unfortunately allowing even our minor league criminals to enjoy the spoils once solely in the domain of the organised gangs.

Car manufacturers have always had a duty to devise and supply dealerships with equipment and devices for fixing malfunctions that develop and in recalls etc but as these newly-introduced tools and technologies are developed they too are falling into the hands of criminals almost immediately, not through any covert black market but actually because they are made available quite legitimately to anyone as genuine sales.

Jamming, blocking, bugging and debugging kits with instructions in how to intrude into a cars OBD or ECU together with devices designed to prevent, deactivate and track stolen cars have all now undergone reverse engineering to counter whatever function they were originally designed to do, creating a new range of Anti – anti theft gadgets.

With the genuine car part supply chains still not moving as it should, the black market trade in second hand spares has now become almost totally controlled by the international crime gangs who are driving the theft of stolen component parts on an industrial scale. A sub market in older cars valued at less than £3,000 appears to have exploded within the past 12 months allowing an increase in the type of criminal scams and antics not seen since the days of the Warren Street dealers who ran the used car world in the 1960s.

These vehicles are traded as cash only cars with scams offering limited ‘personal’ finance with large deposits and V5 retention (by the vendor) at a cost described by ‘Jay’ as a high interest back street loan with a car thrown in. Jay or 637 as he is known to his friends (it was part of his prison number) suggests his 18 months in prison for theft only served as a learning curve to help him acquire more knowledge about the theft techniques and methods relating to other vehicles and make new contacts should he wish to continue in his life of crime.

He intimated that he would continue simply stealing because he thought the risk of getting caught was small when compared with other crimes and most of the things he steals were unidentifiable anyway. He added however that the rise in scavenging and its perceived easy money had seen his rewards almost halve in the last six months.

The willing dealers willing to accept stolen car parts are also very much on the increase and most of them feel safe selling on the internet or through established contacts, many of who travel weekly from bases in Europe to collect, exchange or deliver stolen items. This, Jay states, has opened up lots of cottage industries where garages and open land is used to store vehicle parts usually on routes to and from the ports of entry and exit into the UK.
These have in turn opened up even more opportunities for wannabe gang members or local youngsters willing to steal for money or gifts.

This new type of car theft is an annoyance to the countries 160,000 frustrated police officers who see the problem centred on that of identification or rather the lack of it when it comes to stolen property.

For example after a raid on several active chop shops where in excess of 50 high value, clearly stolen cars were found in various stages of dismantlement, it was clear that all the chassis and engine numbers had been removed prior to their arrival. One disheartened officer stated that none of the haul, worth well in excess of half a million pounds could be positively identified and would be left with the thieves.

There already exists several successful marking companies who offer this marking service at a cost, but until the Government sponsor these or devise their own compulsory marking scheme then the car scavengers will continue to plague in excess of 100,000 victims a year and leave our cops wondering why even though the majority deal with motoring issues 75pc of every day, car theft is still considered to be a low priority crime.

Photo by Mark Rowe; street art, Glasgow city centre.


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