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Europe's Car Thieves Go Upscale

AUTO THEFTS IN the European Union fell 4.8 percent between 1995 and 2005 thanks to immobilizers and tracking devices that made cars harder to steal and easier to recover. But there’s limited cause for celebration. The car theft industry is still large and lucrative. In 2006, thieves made off with about one million vehicles in the United States and another million in the European Union.

Moreover, the stolen car market is changing. A report from Europol, the EU’s law enforcement organization, warns that, “The incidence of organized international vehicle trafficking is on the increase.” It adds that, “No other type of criminal activity is as lucrative for such minimal risk.”

Organized gangs are moving up the value chain. Ari Huhtinen, European branch president of the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators, says, “thieves used to target family cars that were easier to steal and had a good market, but now they are taking luxury cars like Mercedes and BMWs.”

Crooks steal luxury cars to order. Thieves burglarize homes to take vehicle keys and documents or simply car-jack drivers in the street. The Europol report says “groups of criminals, thought to be mainly Albanians, crash into high-value cars. When the driver pulls up to assess the damage, the gang immobilizes him before taking his car by force.”

The Europol report says a high-value car can net €15,000 ($22,500) for a thief. It estimates that half the cars stolen in the EU are trafficked to neighboring countries, generating €6.75 billion ($10.13 billion) in annual revenues.

“The vehicles are not only stolen for their own sake; sometimes they are trafficked to finance other crimes,” according to the international police organization Interpol.

Europol’s report describes Europe’s stolen-car industry as a complex network of professionals that includes car thieves, technicians, mechanics, document forgers, drivers, and unscrupulous car dealers. These thieves have learned how to disable immobilizers, locate and eliminate tracking devices, and alter VIN numbers.

Europe’s open borders and uneven patchwork of vehicle databases make car theft relatively easy. Thieves can steal a car in Germany and drive it to a neighboring country for resale with little difficulty. It takes only 14 hours to deliver a stolen car from central Italy to a buyer waiting in Albania. Eastern European countries, the Balkans, and especially Russia, are among the key markets for the stolen cars.

Italy’s police have set up Operation ZFF to combat theft of high-value luxury cars. The name comes from the first three letters of the VIN assigned to Ferraris. But fighting auto theft is difficult. The EU still lacks a fully integrated VIN database, which would prevent buyers in one country from illegally registering a bargain-priced BMW that was stolen in another country.

“Thirty thousand secondhand cars come to Finland every year, but there are not enough controls to prevent a stolen German car from being registered here legally,” says Huhtinen, who is based near Helsinki. He recovers about 50 to 60 cars with fake VINs every month.