WASHINGTON — A different kind of smuggler is emerging as a major player in the international underworld.
Using techniques pioneered by drug traffickers and gun runners, these illicit traders are plying cargo with brand names like Mercedes, Cadillac, and Lexus.
There are no reliable statistics tracking the worldwide trade in stolen cars and trucks. But law enforcement and other experts say it is booming.
In fact, it is a multibillion-dollar business that now touches virtually every country where motor vehicles are in use. At a United Nations conference in Warsaw Dec. 2-3 that focused on the problem, officials cited an "almost unchecked market" in stolen cars.
"Car theft might not have been seen as a crime of considerable importance. There were others that were more violent, and so car theft has been put on the back burner. But we're now seeing radical change," says Eduardo Vetere, an official in charge of the UN's crime prevention and criminal justice division in Vienna.
Car thievery serves as "a catalyst for corruption in the political environment," says Mr. Vetere. "There is a major impact in all of this on democracy."
Vetere noted the need to close loopholes in registration, eliminate bureaucratic delays, and computerize information.
The Warsaw conference, sponsored by the United Nations Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, was the first to involve both private companies and government officials in trying to find technological solutions to car theft.
"For a long time everyone was looking at this as if it was a US problem, but this type of crime is now taking on major proportions in other countries as well," says Joe Pierron, who heads the international unit of the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), a nonprofit car-theft investigation group that works closely with police.
"In the last few years we've seen emerging markets in Eastern Europe and the Pacific Rim, partly due to the geopolitical changes in those regions," Mr. Pierron says.
The combination of increased buying power and the removal of border restrictions is making it easier and more lucrative than ever for car smugglers.
For example, a new luxury car stolen in the US and sold on the black market in Europe or Russia commands two to three times its American sticker price, experts say. That means a $45,000 Lexus is selling for up to $135,000 in Russia.
And the risks to smugglers are minimal. Once a stolen car crosses international borders, the chances of it being traced - let alone returned - are slim, law enforcement officials concede.
In Europe, a survey of governments found a patchwork of inconsistent law enforcement efforts, including widespread lack of communication and monitoring of stolen cars from country to country.
That may soon change.
At the Warsaw meeting, law enforcement officials from Europe, Russia, and the US discussed a unified strategy to battle the traffic in stolen vehicles. They made three major proposals:
Establishment of a region-wide database of stolen car information to be made available to police in every country.
Creation of a uniform European system of car ownership papers so that authorities are more likely to spot forgeries.
Negotiation of bilateral agreements between countries to facilitate the return of stolen cars.
Many governments are reluctant to seize stolen cars that have already been purchased by their citizens - who often claim they had no way of knowing that the vehicle was stolen at the time of purchase.
Law enforcement officials doubt they are so innocent, and some think it would help if the so-called innocent owners had their cars seized as criminal evidence. "Once the people who are buying stolen cars realize they face a risk of possible criminal exposure or the loss of their purchased property, then that will impact the demand for stolen cars," says Pierron. "If there are none of those threats, then [the black market] is wide open," he says.
Washington is sending special teams from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and US Customs to help train law enforcement officials in selected countries. "What we are focusing on is international cooperation with our counterparts," says Steven Wiley, chief of the FBI's violent crime and major offender section.
Such cooperation paid dividends last year with the breakup of a major ring that was smuggling stolen cars from Chicago to Poland. "In that case we had Polish police officers working here in Chicago with us," Mr. Wiley says, "and the FBI and Customs Service sent agents to Poland to work the investigation there."
An estimated 1.4 million cars are stolen each year in the US, according to the NICB. Of those, roughly 200,000 to 300,000 are believed to be smuggled overseas for sale on the black market.
Law enforcement officials say it's no accident that some of the nation's highest car theft rates are recorded in cities located close to international ports or near the Mexican border.
The scope of the export problem is evident in US Customs Service case data, says Tony Macisco, who heads Customs' strategic investigations branch. In a six-week period from Oct. 1 to Nov. 12, federal task forces working at major US ports seized 148 stolen vehicles valued at $3.4 million.
"You would be hard-pressed to find a region of the world that does not have stolen US vehicles present," says Pierron.
Smugglers use a range of techniques. One of the most common is hiding stolen vehicles behind a false wall in a steel shipping container. The space between the container doors and the false wall is crammed with decoy cargo, such as automotive spare parts or laundry soap. More than 1 million containers pass through America's busiest ports each year, and Customs inspectors can open only a small percentage.
Many smugglers seek to disguise stolen cars and export them after switching the vehicle identification number (VIN) and obtaining fake ownership documents. Some obtain wrecked cars so they can use the VIN and ownership documents for an identical stolen car.
It doesn't always work. "We are setting up computers to check cars as they come in, running them for prior theft or prior export," says Bob Love, an NICB agent in Miami. "Several times we've shown the same car as having been exported five and six times."
Some smugglers go to great lengths to perfect their operations. A Ukrainian organized crime group operating in Los Angeles manufactured its own VINs. Rather than making up random numbers that would almost certainly tip off police, the group cracked the mathematical code used when assigning new VINs. They were able to create identifying numbers that could make the stolen car appear as if it had just rolled off an assembly line.
The group shipped more than 200 luxury cars from Los Angeles to St. Petersburg, Russia, says Jaime Samaniego, the Los Angeles police detective who cracked the ring. He believes members of the group were intelligence officers in the former Soviet Union.
"They were able to catch us watching them," he says. "They did countersurveillance ... and found us out."
Detective Samaniego says Asian smugglers are no less resourceful. He says he shut down a smuggling ring to China that paid business people to lease luxury cars and deliver them to the ring leaders.
The cars were then placed in shipping containers and sent to China for resale. When the cars were safely out of the country, the business people reported the leased cars as stolen.
Car rental and leasing companies are increasingly becoming the targets of international smugglers. Sgt. Michael Grimm of Florida's Broward County Sheriff's Office. says they are an easy mark. "You can show them a Bahamian drivers license and give them $100, and they will let you drive away with a $15,000 car," he says.
TOP 10 US CITIES WHERE CARS ARE MOST FREQUENTLY STOLEN AND THEIR THEFT RATES
1. Miami (1 of every 29)
1. New York City (1 of 29)
3. Fresno, Calif. (1 of 30)
4. Jersey City, N.J. (1 of 32)
5. Memphis (1 of 47)
5. Phoenix-Mesa, Ariz. (1 of 47)
7. Jackson, Miss. (1 of 48)
8. Stockton-Lodi, Calif. (1 of 49)
9. Los Angeles-Long Beach, Calif. (1 of 50)
10. Sacramento, Calif. (1 of 52)
TOP 10 US PLACES WHERE CARS ARE LEAST FREQUENTLY STOLEN AND THEIR THEFT RATES
1. Binghamton, N.Y. (1 of 1,296)
2. Elmira, N.Y. (1 of 1,043)
3. Glens Falls, N.Y. (1 of 905)
4. Sheboygan, Wis. (1 of 833)
5. Florence, Ala. (1 of 816)
6. Appleton, Wis. (1 of 767)
7. Dutchess County, N.Y. (1 of 710)
8. Cumberland, Mass. (1 of 708)
9. State College, Pa. (1 of 686)
10. Utica-Rome, N.Y. (1 of 682)
National Average Theft Rate: (1 of 130)
Source: National Insurance Crime Bureau, Palos Hills, Ill.
CAR THEFT FACTOIDS
* Albania, Europe's poorest country, reportedly has one of Europe's highest per capita ownerships of Mercedes.
* If car theft were a legitimate business in the US, it would rank fifth among Fortune 500 companies, an insurance trade journal recently stated.
* German police officials estimate that half of all car thefts in Germany are faked, with thieves working with owners to profit off insurance money.
* Cars stolen in Los Angeles are often shipped to China, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam.
Source: UN Information Service, Vienna
TIPS TO PREVENT CAR THEFT
* Have your car's vehicle identification number (VIN) etched into doors, windows, and other parts of the car to deter thieves who might want the car for spare parts.
* Don't hide spare keys in the car.
* If you have a garage at home, use it, and keep it locked.
* Use antitheft devices, such as audible alarms, steering wheel locks, theft-deterrent decals, kill switches, or tracking devices.
* Park in a well-lit, busy area.
* Keep all packages out of sight so as not to attract a thief's attention.
* Park with wheels turned sharply toward the curb and apply the emergency brake.
* When parked, remove keys from the ignition and lock doors.
Staff writer Dan Wood in Los Angeles and Peggy Simpson in Warsaw contributed to this report.