WHEN Jan Jablonski returned from Munich to Warsaw with a brand new Volkswagen Golf, the car thieves were waiting for him.
Mr. Jablonski believes they were tipped off by a young Polish customs agent, who, when looking over Jablonski's papers at the border, casually asked if he planned to keep his new purchase in a locked garage. No, Jablonski answered, he would be parking it on the street.
In retrospect, says the Warsaw resident, it is clear what happened: The customs agent took his address from his documents and alerted the thieves. Jablonski says that no sooner had he arrived home, than the thieves set to work. They were foiled, he says, only because he happened to look out of his apartment window, saw what was happening, and chased them off.
It is difficult to hang on to a new car in Poland these days, especially a Western one. Poland has become a key link in a highly organized car-theft chain that stretches from the Netherlands to Russia.
According to Warsaw police investigator Artur Pikulski, Poland is home to Mafia-style gangs that sell stolen Western cars to buyers here or ship them farther east to Russia. The trade has always existed, says Mr. Pikulski, but it has expanded rapidly since the Iron Curtain rose in 1989.
In the last three years, car theft shot up as much as 30 percent annually in some Western European countries, with most of the cars sold to eager, often unsuspecting buyers in the East.
Car theft in Germany, the largest source of stolen cars for the East, jumped by 45 percent last year, to 87,000 cars, says Peter Gauly, spokesman for the Motor Insurance Association in Bonn, a trade association of German auto insurers.
"A large number of the cars go to Poland," says Mr. Gauly, adding that the most popular targets are Mercedes, BMW, Audi, and the Volkswagen Golf. Japanese and British cars are seldom stolen. Car rental companies such as Avis now forbid their cars to be driven into Poland.
Crime is rising all over Eastern and Central Europe, but at the moment, car theft is one of the "most popular" crimes, says police investigator Pikulski. "It's so easy. You can make a quick profit and there's not much risk."
Favorite methods include copying keys while a car is being repaired; stealing cars from a wholesaler; or stealing a gas cap, having a key made from the cap, and then using the key to start the car. The ignition key is often used to open the gas cap.
The gangs directing the continent-wide theft scheme are highly organized, says Pikulski. They are run by leaders who have set up teams of thieves, experts on document falsification, transporters, and distributors. Cars are delivered either according to direct orders for certain makes and colors, or are sold in the many makeshift car lots springing up all over Poland.
Pikulski says the Polish police are practically helpless to prevent car theft. "The police are not able to do anything about it," he says, partly because everything happens so quickly. Cars are stolen in Germany during the night and pull up at the Polish border, outfitted with false papers and plates, before their owners wake up and report the theft.
Poland is a member of Interpol, the international police organization, and receives lists of cars stolen from Germany, Sweden, and Austria. But Pikulski says the lists are incomplete, and the lack of computerization in Poland complicates and slows international cooperation.
Bribing officials is not uncommon in Poland, the police investigator says: "You can register a stolen car for a bar of chocolate."
The Motor Insurance Association of Germany, meanwhile, has set up a bureau in Poland, says Gauly, and is training police on "how to recognize a stolen car." The Poles confiscated 2,000 cars stolen from Germany last year, but only 400 of them were returned, says Gauly. He blames this on the lack of a bilateral treaty regulating legal cooperation between the two countries.
Pikulski says many stolen cars now wind up in Russia, where demand for Western cars is skyrocketing. "Once [a car] enters the [Commonwealth of Independent States], it's lost for good," he says.
Meanwhile in Poland, the car alarm business is booming. At Firma Elektron, where Jablonski later spent two months' salary on a car alarm and antitheft markings, the firm's owner is running a very profitable business. "It's now a rule of thumb. People install alarms in their cars the day they buy them," says Stanislaw Prokopczuk, Firma Elektron's owner. He plans to open five more car alarm stores in Warsaw this year. He admits that the thieves can work their way around the alarms. "But it's a deterrent. I f there are 20 cars, and half of them have alarms, then the other half are the ones that will be stolen first."