Big profits overseas for stolen luxury cars, SUVs, even family vehicles.Your car may be on a voyage to somewhere far, far away … Canada is a major auto-exporting country. Trouble is, some of the cars, trucks and SUVs headed abroad already have owners. While auto theft rates are falling, the lucrative export trade in stolen vehicles shows little sign of going down. By some estimates, 20,000 luxury cars, SUVs and even bread-and-butter family rides are ending up in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Central America every year.Vehicles stolen on the Prairies tend to be boosted by joyriders, often looking for something to use to commit other crimes. But the metropolitan areas of Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal are rich hunting grounds for organized auto-theft rings that funnel stolen wheels overseas.Montreal is the principal exit port for stolen vehicles going overseas – more than 500 stolen vehicles were seized on the docks there last year – followed by Halifax and Vancouver. Some are also shipped by rail across the U.S. border, then onto ships in ports like Elizabeth, New Jersey, and Baltimore, Maryland, says Ben Jillett, a former RCMP officer who now works for the Insurance Bureau of Canada, helping recover some stolen vehicles from foreign countries.They arrive often in places you’ve never heard of before reaching their ultimate destinations. Flip through the gallery to find out what five top locations are.
This west African port city is one of two popular entry points for stolen vehicles destined to be sold on the continent. Automobile taxes and import duties are very high in African countries, especially for luxury models, which makes illegally imported stolen vehicles very attractive. Insurance Bureau investigator Ben Jillett and his colleagues have seen Canadian vehicles in Africa with their original provincial license plates, which apparently give the car added cachet. One car even had a parking pass for Toronto city hall. Ghanian media have reported government promises to crack down on lax import enforcement.
Tin Can Island, Nigeria
This major container port near Nigeria’s biggest city, Lagos, is also a key channel for stolen vehicles heading into the continent, says Jillett. While luxury cars and SUVs are in high demand, Jillett, who worked in west Africa, says Toyota models of all kinds are the most popular, especially the RAV4 compact SUV. They’re rugged and parts are easy to obtain. And if your Toyota Corolla or Camry has disappeared without a trace, there’s every chance it’s now working as a taxi in some African or Middle Eastern city.Condition isn’t that critical, even with luxury cars, Jillett and his IBC colleague Charles Rabbat, who works with Canada Border Services Agency and police to intercept stolen vehicles in Montreal and Halifax, point out. Vehicles often arrive with dings and dents because they’re not well-secured in their containers. Doesn’t matter – they find ready buyers.
This Finnish port, along with Turku, Finland, is a known entry point for stolen vehicles headed into Eastern Europe. Jillett and Rabbat say former Soviet Bloc countries, especially in the Balkans, remain lucrative markets for stolen cars. East European crime rings have been discovered with tentacles reaching to Central America. Stolen vehicles also go through ports at Antwerp, Belgium, Rotterdam, Holland and Bremerhaven, Germany.The IBC has some success repatriating exported vehicles (at a cost to the owner) but prospects fall off outside of European Union and G8 countries. Jillett says former East Bloc countries such as Poland are improving and he’s even seen progress in Kosovo. But a major impediment is the lack of integration of North American and Interpol stolen-vehicle, which makes it harder to confirm a suspect exported vehicle is actually stolen.
The Middle East, including Israel, Lebanon, Iran and Iraq, are tagged as stolen-car hotspots by the IBC. Containerized vehicles make their way via Genoa, Italy and to eastern Mediterranean ports such as Beirut. Jillett says the advent of electronic ignition immobilizers has spurred the growth of fraud as a way of acquiring vehicles. Theft rings, often using stolen identities, lease or buy vehicles on credit and drive them straight into containers or to staging areas for later shipment. A few years ago 165 vehicles financed in Toronto were traced to the Middle East, says Jillett. It’s often hard to confirm a vehicle is even stolen because the bank hasn’t reported the financing in default. It also allows rich customers to get vehicles stolen to order. And not only cars. Jillett says a Saudi police officer told him he found stolen snowmobiles, imported to the desert country just for their novelty value.
China has begun tightening rules on the importation of older-model vehicles, mainly for environmental reasons, but that hasn’t completely choked off the demand for imported stolen cars. Hong Kong is one entry point but Jillett says vehicles shipped to Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand often are really destined for China. The IBC says the trade moves out of Vancouver and Seattle but the extent of it isn’t clear. RCMP Sgt. Gord Elias of British Columbia’s integrated auto crime team says there have been few seizures recently and the B.C. stolen-vehicle recovery rate averages about 92 per cent, including Metro Vancouver, compared with as low as 50 per cent for Metro Toronto. Elias says that suggests organized export-based theft rings aren’t as active yet on the West Coast and that those that do leave from Vancouver were shipped in from elsewhere in Canada.Federal government has toughened the law, creating separate Criminal Code offences for auto theft – previously covered as theft over $5,000 – which carries a mandatory minimum six-month sentence for an auto thief caught three or more times. There are also new sections covering the alteration or removal of the vehicle identification number and possession of a stolen vehicle for the purpose of trafficking. Border services agents now also have the power to detain suspected stolen vehicles without a police officer being present. Jillett says it’s hoped these tools will help cut the flow of stolen vehicles abroad.