IMI Magazine

IMI Magazine

Vehicle Theft - Dead Ringers

Want to hazard a guess as to which make of vehicle is most likely to get stolen in the London area? Then forget Mercedes, Audi, BMW and Porsche and think Ford. As a proportion of registrations, the most popular targets for thieves are Escorts, Fiestas and Transits.

Not that you’d think so from looking round a former multi-storey car park in North London, home of the Metropolitan Police stolen vehicle unit. Two floors are stacked with - this time your guess is right - expensive German cars.

Prominent among them is the Audi TT, but that’s mainly because it forms the main body of evidence against a car ‘ringing’ racket which is shortly to come to trial. Codenamed ‘Aberdale’, it’s the result of a three-year operation involving up to 300 vehicles.

“Investigating car crime is like starting off with a twig which leads to a big tree with many branches,” said Det. Sgt. Clive Dudley, who joined the unit from another squad tackling gangland crime. “Vehicle related crime can be highly profitable, and the sentences for those caught are nowhere near as severe as those, say, for armed robbery. Often, you’ll find that the proceeds from vehicle theft and fraud are used for something even more profitable, mainly drugs trafficking.”

Dudley was looking on as a group of insurance claims engineers were set the task of examining a number of cars to see if they could spot the tell-tale signs of ringing. It was part of a one-day course which the stolen vehicle unit has been running since last summer for anyone in the motor trade who wants to reduce the risk of being conned.

Another member of the unit, Det. Sgt. Martin Redhead, began the session by reporting that vehicle-related offences account for 25 per cent of the total UK crime rate. The number of stolen vehicles - excluding trucks and plant - is currently running at around 300,000 a year, of which 30 per cent are un-recovered.

Vehicle theft is not as bad as it was because of the manufacturers’ moves to fit immobilisers, but these have created problems in themselves. “The key to car theft these days is literally the key,” said Redhead. “Hence the rise of incidents involving car hijackings, thefts from dealer key cabinets, ‘fishing’ through letterboxes of private homes for keys left on telephone tables and even homeowners being threatened by intruders to hand over the keys.”

‘Ringing’, or ‘cloning’ as it’s alternatively called, has shifted in its methodology. Tougher regulations on salvage disposal mean that thieves are taking a greater risk with the scam whereby two identical vehicles are stolen and the identity of one is switched to the second which is then abandoned as a burned out wreck.It’s proving far easier, say the police, for cars abroad – particularly in right hand drive countries – to have their identities duplicated, with the owner blissfully unaware that a stolen car back in the UK now has the same VIN marks as his own.

Cheekier criminals also practice this within the confines of Britain itself, a stolen car in the south of the country, for example, bearing the same marks as a bone fide one in the north.

“It’s all too easy,” said another member of the Met’s stolen vehicle unit, Det. Con. Barry Mudie. “Especially at risk are owners selling their cars privately. A thief pretending to be a genuine buyer will come to view it, note the VIN number – much easier now that these are displayed on car windscreens – and leave on the pretext of wanting to do an HPI check.

“He then writes to the DVLA saying that in the process of moving home he’s lost the logbook and applies for a replacement. He doesn’t even have to pay for an accommodation address – all that’s needed is access to the entry hall of a block of flats where he can pick up the post addressed to him.”

Why doesn’t the DVLA carry out more rigorous checks to combat this type of fraud? “Because their job is to collect revenue, not act as a law enforcement agency,” replied Mudie.

Even so, it raises a few questions. Why, for example, does the DVLA now charge £19 for a replacement logbook, not a big sum for a professional car thief, and then offer a postal order as a payment option, meaning that it can’t be traced back to the sender? Why isn’t there a compulsory registration scheme for plate makers (there are around 90,000 producers of registration plates in the UK, of which 23,000 are voluntarily listed with the DVLA)? And why was one application for a replacement logbook refused because the original was known to be unauthorised, only for a second application involving the same document to be accepted?

The unauthorised V5 was one of a batch of 11,000 blanks which went missing, prompting the DVLA to issue an alert over any of these documents bearing the reference numbers AP or AN. To add to the problem, a police raid earlier this year unearthed more than 2,000 forgeries carried out by a printer.Mudie and his colleagues point out that forged documents – particularly those accompanying imports – are all too easy with today’s sophisticated scanning and PC equipment.

That’s not to say police are fighting a losing battle. They have great allies in the form of greed and carelessness. As Martin Redhead explained: “One fraudster had no fewer than 2,000 vehicle identities and had committed 300 offences, so he was just asking to get caught at some stage.

“With plasma equipment, thieves can do a superb job welding replacement VIN plates to bulkheads, but then they will do something stupid like fixing a VIN plate of a left hand drive vehicle on to a right hand drive model. Or the batch number of the plate far exceeds the production figure of that particular model.”“It’s all evidence that we can use to convict, but unfortunately at that stage the rightful owner has been deprived of his vehicle.” 

What can the public do to protect themselves against buying a ringer? “Buy through a reputable auction house or dealer,” said Redhead. “You wouldn’t dream of handing over a great lump of cash to a man in a car park to buy a house, yet this is what some people are prepared to do when buying a car because they think they’re getting a bargain.”

And, if your vehicle is in a high-risk category, a good investment is an electronic tracker – around 93 per cent of cars fitted with these devices are recovered.

For further details of courses run by the unit, contact martin.redhead@met.police.uk.