It’s like something out of a Hollywood movie. One day a luxury car dealership is going about its daily routine, assisting customers with purchases and repairs, ordering spare parts and chatting about future models. The routine is almost paralyzing in its normalcy — the perfect backdrop for a sinister plot.
Then the storm hits. The calm is over. Eight cars gone. The culprits left hardly a trace. Half a million dollars in vehicles now in the hands of someone, or some entity, with enough clout to pull off such a daring deed. A Harry Houdini of the underworld. Or a pack of Houdinis.
But this was no movie. BMW of Darien felt the reality of such an awful incident one late August morning when employees came to work and realized six cars were missing. The theft was executed with such malevolent precision that it took days before the dealer realized eight cars were actually stolen.
Where did the cars go? Who took them? How could something like this happen, especially with all the security measures and technological advancements? These questions, among others, can’t be answered by local law enforcement. At least not yet. So The Darien Times took these questions elsewhere, with hopes that perhaps someone can disinfect this fetid situation with some old fashioned sunshine.
International by nature
For 10 years, Frank Scafidi worked the Los Angeles crime beat as an LAPD officer, handling some of the most heinous crimes for one of the country’s most respected law enforcement agencies. Then for 20 years he worked for the FBI where he acted, among other things, as spokesman for the bureau.
Although he’s now retired, his knowledge of auto theft investigation keeps him in the game. He now does public relations for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, an organization that acts as a liaison between insurance companies and the law.
“In the world of auto thefts, [eight] is a big number,” Scafidi told The Times. “It’s a sign these aren’t your garden variety knuckleheads. It suggests there is a certain amount of organization behind it.”
It’s estimated that only a third of stolen vehicles are ever recovered, and experts say these cars are often not stolen by an organized crime syndicate, but petty thieves. Luxury cars, such as the ones stolen from Darien, have high value in overseas markets. Investigating officers face intricate methods of forged documents, front companies, an entrenched network of bribery, and re-plated car parts that erase evidence of origin, making these crime rings nearly impossible to break.
And it’s lucrative. Interpol, an international policing agency, estimated it’s an $18 billion global enterprise, with the money disappearing into “a parallel economy.”
“A key aspect of this form of crime is the need to legalize stolen vehicles in order for the criminal to achieve monetary gain,” the organization stated.
In the book, “Forensic Investigation of Stolen-Recovered and Other Crime-Related Vehicles,” Miami Police Maj. Greg Terp writes that as the world economy merges and borders disappear, stolen vehicles have become an important commodity.
“With international laws and treaties weak at repatriating stolen vehicles back to the victim’s country, it is a high profit and low-risk enterprise,” Terp wrote.
Grant D. Ashley, assistant director of the FBI’s criminal investigative division, told a U.S. Senate subcommittee that auto theft is among the “most frequent violations cited in Eurasian organized crime cases.”
“Organized criminal enterprises are no longer bound by constraints of borders,” Ashley said.
Where’d they go?
A number of theories exist on what happened to the stolen BMWs. Thieves can buy a salvaged vehicle and use its vehicle identification number, or VIN, to replace the stolen car’s VIN. The title is legit, and the VIN numbers match.
But Peter Saldamarco doesn’t think that happened. Saldamarco is president of the Central Auto Auction in Hamden, and said a salvaged title would raise too many questions, especially if the cars were brand new and in perfect condition.
“Nowadays every panel is tattooed with ID numbers,” Saldamarco said. “Now they have a salvaged title, it still has to go through a DMV inspection.”
The thieves could also try selling cars on Craigslist, a classified ad website. In July, Chicago Police busted a theft ring responsible for stealing more than 200 luxury cars, valued at more that $4 million, and selling them on Craigslist and through newspapers. In Bridgeport, a couple found their stolen car on Craigslist while shopping for a vehicle. Thieves in Sacramento stole cars, changed the VINs, sold the cars, and then stole them back and re-sold them.
Craigslist did not respond to a request for comment.
Once a car makes it overseas, however, the process of recovery can be nearly impossible. Scafidi, the former FBI agent, said a common act is “cloning” stolen cars. Thieves will record the VIN number of an identical car and color. They then go through every part on the stolen vehicle attached to the VIN and replace it with the cloned number. High-tech software systems then create titles that appear completely legit. Canadian agencies in 2007 discovered four cars that all shared the same VIN number.
Cars can also be stripped in chop shops and sold as parts, but the value of luxury cars often makes them more attractive as whole cars, Scafidi said.
Sometimes thieves will park stolen cars in “cool-off zones,” according to Terp, the Miami cop. The cars are parked in public places, such as apartment buildings, hospitals or commuter lots where they will not attract attention or provide a link to the thief. The culprits then wait to see if the car has a tracking device. If police come, then the thieves know it was tracked.
It’s unclear whether the BMWs had such devices. Most new BMWs are equipped with the BMW Assist function, which uses GPS and cellular technology to help the driver in various situations. These systems function on GSM technology, which is what AT&T and T-Mobile use. Verizon and Sprint use CDMA.
Even if the cars are discovered, sometimes it’s not worth the effort to bring them home, Scafidi said. “At that point, it belongs to the insurance company,” Scafidi said. “If we find that the insurance company wants to go through that experience of getting the car back, we go through a process with the U.S. State Department.”
This is often cumbersome and lengthy, Scafidi added, and sometimes the insurance carrier decides to let sleeping dogs lie. The cost of returning stolen vehicle depends on a number of factors, such as proximity and diplomatic relationships.
“Even when vehicles are located in a foreign country, many governments are reluctant to take a vehicle from their citizens,” Terp wrote. “In fact, stolen vehicles from a particular country are sometimes found being used by government officials in another country.”
Next week, The Darien Times looks closer at the specific BMW incident, including the distraction technique used to foil the security company and which helped the culprits escape in one of the biggest car heists in Connecticut history.