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Back to Archives | Back to July 2011 Contents 

The Changing Face of Vehicle Theft

By Christopher T. McDonold, President, International Association of Auto Theft Investigators; and Detective, Baltimore County, Maryland, Police Department, Regional Auto Theft Team


here is a common misconception that vehicle theft as a whole has remained unchanged in recent times, but nothing could be further from the truth. Vehicle theft has changed dramatically over the past decade; the who, the what, the where, the when, the how, and especially the why of vehicle theft are all complex questions. Gone are the days of encountering simple cases involving teenage joyriders who take a vehicle for an hour or two and then abandon it in a dimly lit parking lot. Today, vehicle theft is high technology and involves sophisticated transnational vehicle theft rings that target particular makes and models of vehicles for various reasons.

A popular belief is that vehicle theft is a problem caused only by juvenile offenders who are relieving their boredom. However, this belief never had grounding in reality, even during the years with the highest rates of vehicle theft, which were 1992–1994. According to the FBI’s Crime in the United States,1995, 58 percent of arrestees for vehicle theft were adults.1 Over the 10-year period 2000–2009, the percentage of arrested adults to arrested juveniles grew to a 3:1 ratio.2

In the Baltimore region (includes Baltimore City and Baltimore County), juvenile arrest rates in the past were skewed by motive: juveniles tended to steal in groups to impress their friends, and adults generally stole alone. Therefore, when juveniles were arrested, there were more arrests per vehicle than there typically were with adults. The advent of technology-driven vehicle ignition security, or transponder keys, has helped to reduce the prevalence of juvenile joyriders and lower overall vehicle theft rates. The majority of vehicle theft–related arrests now consist of adults; however, these adults are not acting alone. The new face of auto theft consists of groups of organized and technologically savvy adults. The change in technology leads to changes in how vehicles are being stolen.


Complex Security Breaches

Technology plays a huge role in a neverending cycle; vehicle manufacturers implement newer technologies to prevent vehicle theft, and this in turn forces those who are stealing vehicles to utilize other technologies to overcome security systems, and so on. Today’s auto thieves have become sophisticated in their endeavors and utilize many different methods to continue to accomplish their tasks.

No matter how auto theft is accomplished, owners must be diligent in their efforts to curb it. Significantly, complex security systems are most often defeated by owners’ basic thoughtlessness. For example, owners leaving vehicles running unattended or otherwise with keys in them is one of the simplest ways that they enable the defeat of high-tech security. The Baltimore Regional Auto Theft Team (RATT), comprising officers from Baltimore County, Baltimore City, and Maryland State Police, has conducted several studies since its inception. In 1995, the Baltimore RATT conducted a five-month study of recovered stolen vehicles at the city’s impound yard and found that 25 percent of the vehicles had the keys in the ignition. In 2010, the Baltimore RATT studied 400 cases of recovered stolen vehicles in which arrests had been made and found that 85 percent had been stolen with the vehicle’s keys. These studies identify a cause for concern. Is the public becoming dependent on technology at the expense of basic common sense? In the Baltimore region, an estimated 1,500 vehicles with keys in the ignition were stolen both in 1995 and in 2010.3 Thieves will always seek the easiest means to steal vehicles. The fact that vehicle theft is still largely a crime of opportunity has remained constant.


Myriad Methods

There are myriad methods to steal a newer car: use a duplicate key, take cars left warming up at convenience stores or in front of homes, commit a burglary, use valet keys, or carjack. Other methods include insurance fraud, rental vehicle theft, and the direct involvement of automotive dealership personnel. Many of these methods can be categorized as burglaries, frauds, or robberies and may not be included in vehicle theft statistics. Finally, the Internet has exponentially increased the number of criminal schemes that thieves can launch; the term “caveat emptor” has never had greater significance for buyers.

Even though conventional means of stealing vehicles have not gone by the wayside, newer and more sophisticated methods exist. For example, many vehicles are stolen from rental vehicle companies via various fraudulent schemes and then are exported to foreign countries. Rental vehicles are newer vehicles, and they come with keys. A number of law enforcement agencies do not accept reports of rental vehicle thefts, advising the companies instead to pursue civil remedies. One Maryland rental car company installed global positioning system (GPS) devices in its vehicles, and some of the first stolen vehicles it located were in Ghana, Africa.4

Insurance fraud was growing before the latest recession began. The Internet has assisted in this crime by enabling faceless business transactions. The fraudster can buy a vehicle, obtain a bank loan, buy an insurance policy, falsely report its theft over the telephone or the Internet, and file a claim. These faceless transactions make suspect identification far more difficult and, when committed across state or international lines, almost impossible for local law enforcement to address. This is the perfect environment for fraudsters who possess the ability to ship a vehicle across state lines or out of the country before reporting it stolen, providing a greater likelihood that it will be recovered. In 2006, the Los Angeles, California, Police Department broke up a Chechen terrorist plot involving luxury vehicles shipped to Eastern Europe using insurance fraud.5 Many law enforcement agencies do not handle insurance fraud investigations. Although insurance fraud technically is not considered vehicle theft, the vehicles involved are falsely reported stolen and are reflected in vehicle theft rates. With the current recession, some citizens already in debt have viewed insurance fraud as an easy means out of a particular debt. Gap insurance, an insurance policy that covers the distance between what a vehicle is worth and what is owed on it, has made fraud more attractive by creating the mathematical reason for its commission: a clean ledger slate.

The latest methods of theft have become more technological in nature. One method is a relay attack, which “is performed through the use of a paired set of radio devices. These are used to capture the signals emitted by the vehicle and the replies from the smart key and extend their range so that the key and vehicle believe that they are within the authorized operation area. In doing so, a thief is able to enter the vehicle and start the engine, disarming all conventional onboard security without having the original key and without alerting the owner of the vehicle.”6 Another method used is a transponder key duplicator system. This system can duplicate keys from the vehicle’s master transponder keys.7 The equipment needed for either method can be purchased from various sites on the Internet. A criminal organization willing to spend some money can obtain all of the necessary high-tech tools for stealing vehicles. Some criminal gangs might even hire trained vehicle locksmiths who can defeat the newest security systems.

Not all methods of theft involve technology in isolation, though. Individuals who know how to use technology may become unsuspecting or unwilling participants in the crime. Insiders such as managers and mechanics at automotive dealerships possess technical information and access to technology and equipment, and they could easily duplicate a key while a car is at the dealership for service. When thieves infiltrate these businesses, car thefts soar, and there may be no physical evidence to indicate how the thefts were accomplished.

Many Internet sites provide easy access for sales of vehicles—consider, for example, the giant online vehicle sales markets at eBay Motors and on Craigslist. These sites have been a boon to illicit businesses, although eBay does cooperate with law enforcement and the advent of PayPal has reduced the victimization that once occurred on the web. Once eBay’s site became more secure, illicit buyers began shopping on Craigslist, where transactions are less secure.

Unfortunately, there still are instances where buyers and sellers become victims. For example, a buyer might take a vehicle on a test-drive and never return; a seller occasionally is given a bad check; and an unsuspecting victim may purchase a vehicle on a website such as Craigslist, pay for the vehicle, and never receive it. A case like the latter is almost impossible to prosecute because no agency polices the Internet, which makes it a perfect place for thieves to conduct business.

The prevalence of Internet use and the business of vehicle theft have created jurisdictional issues surrounding not only from where a vehicle is stolen but also from where it is recovered and where the theft should be prosecuted.


Cloned Vehicles

A legal vehicle is considered “cloned” if its identity is stolen and then used for a stolen vehicle in order to make the stolen vehicle appear to be legal. The stolen vehicle can then be registered and sold.8 Many of the cloned vehicles that are seen in the Baltimore metropolitan region are from Canada or are transported long distances across the United States.

The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) (49 U.S.C. 30502) is the birth-to-death record of vehicle identification numbers and was created to deter trafficking in stolen vehicles by, among other actions, strengthening law enforcement efforts against auto theft; combating automobile title fraud; preventing “chop shop”–related thefts; and inspecting exports for stolen vehicles. The NMVTIS protects states and consumers (both individual and commercial) from fraud; reduces the use of stolen vehicles for illicit purposes, including fund-raising for criminal enterprises; and provides consumers protection from unsafe vehicles.9

The NMVTIS has recently seen success stories, but it is still in its infancy. It is the hope that the system, once fully functional, will provide a large quantity of leads on cloned vehicles. Local law enforcement has most of the trained vehicle identification experts needed to examine suspected cloned vehicles. The National White Collar Crime Center began training law enforcement in the United States to recognize certain red flags when examining these vehicles.


Worldwide Problem
One of two Lincoln SUVs that were shipped to West Africa and were later reported as stolen
A Bentley that is ready to be shipped to the Middle East, apparently intended to be part of an insurance fraud
The cost of the component parts far exceeds the total retail value of this SUV
A Lexus SUV that was shipped to West
Africa, reported stolen in an insurance fraud scheme in New York, and recovered in Baltimore, Maryland, by the FBI and the Baltimore RATT
A Toyota Avalon that was legally bought, shipped, and later reported stolen

Photography courtesy of the Baltimore Regional Auto Theft Team


Auto theft is a worldwide problem. A January 2011 article in the United Kingdom by BBC News showed that the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) lost 130,000 blank DVLA documents. “Vehicles worth £13m have been stolen as a result of the loss of thousands of blank DVLA log books, a BBC investigation has found. DCI Mark Hooper from the Association of Chief Police Officers’ (ACPO) vehicle crime intelligence service told BBC’s Donal MacIntyre programme: ‘It will keep me very busy, and my team very busy, for the next hundred or so years, I suspect.’”10

Stolen vehicles and their parts can travel many miles. For example, when looking at a cloned vehicle, the donor Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) might come from far away and be used on a stolen car from another state. For example, a VIN number could be taken from a vehicle in Washington State and then cloned onto a stolen vehicle from Canada that is then sold in Maryland. Recently, the FBI arrested a Cuban national in Mexico who was involved in a scheme that transported stolen vehicles across the United States.11 In this scheme, stolen and cloned vehicles were taken from the Midwest to south Florida.

Motorcycle theft. One of the fastest growing international theft trends is motorcycle theft. Motorcycles are easy to steal, easy to dissemble, and easy to ship as parts. Sales are accomplished through Internet auctions on websites such as eBay and Craigslist. Motorcycles have the lowest theft-recovery rate; according to a study by the National Insurance Crime Bureau, only 30 percent of motorcycles stolen in the United States are recovered.12 Low motorcycle theft–recovery rates are also evident in the United Kingdom: Approximately 26,000 motorcycles were stolen in 2009 with a 42 percent recovery rate.13 These vehicles and their parts are easy to ship across continents where the receiving countries often lack any ability to access databases like the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and consequently cannot identify the vehicles stolen.

Japanese, Canadian influence. Another focus is on Japanese vehicles. A global economy not only applies to legal entities; global auto theft is flourishing as well. A January 2004 article suggests the marketing strategies used by Japanese manufacturers spread their vehicles across the globe, effectively making their vehicles the world’s vehicles, for which parts supplies are readily available.14 In addition to Japanese vehicles, high-end utility vehicles are also a very popular commodity overseas. In 2006, a Canadian auto-theft ring was arrested; they were in the business of stealing high-end SUVs such as Land Rovers, Mercedes-Benzes, and BMWs, as well as Japanese vehicles and exporting them to Nigeria. The profit on such deals is extremely lucrative. It is estimated that as of 2006, more than 170,000 vehicles were stolen in Canada annually, with approximately 20,000 of those vehicles being exported overseas.15

Buyers of these vehicles often do not know how the vehicles were obtained. These vehicles will not be returned to the victims’ insurance companies because there is no treaty for return of stolen property between most first-world and third-world countries.

Older vehicles. Newer vehicles are not always the focus, however. There is a common practice of stealing vehicles for mere scrap metal weight prices called Steal 4 Steel. This practice is defined as the theft of older cars for the sole purpose of scrapping them for their scrap metal weight and the profit from the sale of their catalytic converters. Around the world, scrap metal prices rose until the recession of 2008, at which point they dropped and these thefts slowed. But prices are up once again and thefts are rising. Many states allow the sale of an older vehicle without a title. For example, Maryland law allows the titleless sale of an older vehicle after eight model years. The thieves can cut off the catalytic converter and the gas tank and sell the catalytic converter separately for a good profit. The thieves may have to use an indemnity form to release the scrap processor from civil or criminal liability. The investigation of these cases requires a special response, as the thieves are declaring that they have a claim of right to the vehicles, and most of the victims are poor. These thefts occur across the United States and the United Kingdom and are a part of the growing problem of metal theft.

Accessories. A newer trend is stealing vehicles for the accessories. Vehicles now have computerized equipment to support various devices. In 2011, some vehicles (select Fords and Lincolns) were equipped with Wi-Fi hotspot technology, making connection to the Internet possible. GPS devices are easily spotted and stolen. Wheels and rims are expensive and often stolen, although some of these so-called thefts are actually insurance fraud. Finally, many people create “show cars” with fancy racing hoods, ground effects, and wings. These are expensive and interchangeable; hence, they are theft targets. As a result, expensive accessory thefts are rising.

Street racing. Another increasingly popular reason why vehicles are stolen is related to street racing, and many police agencies are unaware of the scope of such activities. These races occur late at night and gain attention only when there is a catastrophic crash. The street racers fund their hobby with false police reports of car thefts or damage to their vehicles. Eventually, they have to steal vehicles or component parts to continue racing. Thieves need parts to repair and replace damaged parts in racing, which now has moved to motorcycle racing and performing stunts also. The vehicles being raced were not intended for racing, and the engines and transmissions are effectively destroyed in the process.16

Vehicle theft has come a long way from the days of teenagers stealing vehicles simply for the cheap thrill. These thieves saw no value in the vehicle itself but rather in the few minutes of fun. Today, there are many reasons why vehicles are stolen; some have already been mentioned, such as stealing for the value of the metal, for parts needed for street racing, and for the value in expensive accessories. One of the most common reasons for vehicle theft is the ability to generate profit from organized vehicle theft activities. Stolen vehicles are profitable, either intact or parted out. The answer for many questions about vehicle theft may be found in financial news sources. According to a recent article in USA Today, “A weaker dollar has made exports from the United States more desirable in many countries such as Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, China, and Germany. More than 1.5 million new cars were exported last year, up 38 percent from 2009, Commerce Department data show. Last year’s automotive exports were valued at $36.7 billion.”17 If there is a market for new vehicles, think of the market for stolen vehicles.

Because of these international theft rings, law enforcement agencies need each other now more than ever. One detective in Baltimore was recently contacted by a United Kingdom private investigator about a construction equipment piece in Eastern Europe that appeared to be a finance fraud theft from the United States. Law enforcement needs contacts and fast information across international borders now more than ever.


Local Auto Theft Unit Safety

Currently there is a concern with a trend that in tough times, many agencies are eliminating their vehicle theft units. It takes about five years for an investigator to learn advanced vehicle identification. In current and future trends, experts expect auto thieves to become more technological, employ more sophisticated schemes, and transport more vehicles across international lines.

Local investigators need contacts, training, and vehicle identification resources. Leaving these complex investigations to untrained personnel sets them up for failure. The 21st century vehicle thief has discovered weak spots. Although the nonprofessional joyrider has been defeated for the most part, the emerging transnational organized rings pose a new threat.

The IAATI exists to track these trends, provide training and investigator certification, and to provide rapid contacts across international lines. For more information about IAATI, visit http://www.iaati.org. ■

Christopher T. McDonold is a member of the IACP Vehicle Theft Committee.

Notes:

1U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Crime in the United States 1995, Uniform Crime Reports, released Sunday, October 13, 1996, 212, http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/cjis/ucr/crime-in-the-u.s/1995/95sec4.pdf (accessed May 5, 2011).
2FBI, Crime in the United States 2009, September 2010, table 32, http://www2.fbi.gov/ucr/cius2009/data/table_32.html (accessed May 5, 2011).
3Data from an internal study by the Baltimore County, Maryland, Police Department.
4Data from internal case documentation regarding NextCar and the Montgomery County, Maryland, Police Department.
5Robert Block, “An L.A. Police Bust Shows New Tactics for Fighting Terror,” Wall Street Journal, December 29, 2006.
6“Relay Attacks on Cars,” International Association of Auto Theft Investigators United Kingdom Branch, January 27, 2011, http://www.iaati.org.uk/?p=1001 (accessed May 24, 2011).
7“Car Key Programmer,” BlaserKey, http://www.blaserkey.com/Products/CarKeyProgrammer/tabid/60/agentType/View/PropertyID/17/Default.aspx (accessed May 24, 2011).
8Charles Montaldo, “FBI Warns Public about Cloned Cars,” About.com Guide, March 10, 2010, http://www.crime.about.com/b/2010/03/11/fbi-warns-public-about-cloned-cars.htm (accessed May 5, 2011).
9Department of Justice, National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, “NMVTIS and Its Benefits to Law Enforcement,” http://www.nmvtis.gov/nmvtis_law_enforcement.html (accessed May 5, 2011).
10Phil Kemp, “Theft of DVLA Log Books Fuels Cars Scam,” Donal MacIntyre Show, BBC Radio 5 Live, January 31, 2010, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/8487381.stm (accessed May 5, 2011).
11Associated Press, “Mexico Extradites Fugitive in Car-Theft Ring to U.S.,” Taiwan News, January 11, 2011, http://www.taiwannews.com.tw/etn/news_content.php?id=1482413&lang=eng_news (accessed July 12, 2011).
12National Insurance Crime Bureau, “Motorcycle Thefts Down 13 Percent in 2009,” press release, April 13, 2010, https://www.nicb.org/newsroom/news-releases/motorcycle-thefts-and-recoveries-in-the-u-s- (accessed May 5, 2011).
13“Recovery Rate of Stolen Motorcycles Declining Year on Year,” Express Insurance, November 11, 2010, http://www.expressinsurance.co.uk/about/media-centre/press-releases/recovery-rate-of-stolen-motorcycles-declining-year-on-year- (accessed May 5, 2011).
14Todd Zaun and Jason Singer, “How Japan’s Second-Hand Cars Make Their Way to Third World,” The Wall Street Journal, January 8, 2004.
15“Five Arrested in Ontario Auto-Theft Scam,” GhanaWeb, June 1, 2006, http://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/diaspora/artikel.php?ID=105179 (accessed May 5, 2011).
16Mike Bender, The Fast, the Fraudulent, and the Fatal: The Dangerous and Dark Side of Illegal Street Racing, Drifting, and Modified Cars (Bloomington, Ind.: AuthorHouse, 2009).
17Chris Woodyard, “Auto Exports from U.S. on Rise,” USA Today, March 7, 2011, http://www.usatoday.com/money/autos/2011-03-07-carexports07_ST_N.htm (accessed May 5, 2011).

Please cite as:

Christopher T. McDonold, "The Changing Face of Vehicle Theft," The Police Chief 78 (July 2011): 40–45.

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From The Police Chief, vol. 78, no. 7, July 2011. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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