Hey, dude, where's your car? Auto theft is global and growing

From your parking lot to Africa, Asia, eastern Europe and the Mideast — auto theft is a truly globalized industry

Jo Chowdhury didn't need to call upon his considerable professional experience to know the vehicles were far from home. A BMW X5 sport utility vehicle, late-model Toyotas and Mercedes, and many other automobiles–freshly discharged from container ships–sat baking under the African sun. They stood in stark contrast to the hungry workers, dilapidated buildings and aging infrastructure of Tema, Ghana's largest port facility, near Accra. “It was obvious that these vehicles had a story,” recalls Chowdhury of that day in 2004. “You or I would not sell a vehicle leaving a baby seat in the back. You or I would not rummage through the glovebox and scatter papers all over. There were brand new Range Rovers, and you could see they'd been in containers and damaged because they hadn't been strapped down properly.” The importers hadn't removed the Ontario and Quebec licence plates, and one Toyota had a City of Toronto parking permit on its windshield.

Chowdhury is an investigator with the Worldwide Repatriations Centre, a British company. His job is to locate stolen vehicles abroad and return them to their rightful owners. Frequent clients include rental, leasing and insurance companies. He was only looking for six European vehicles at Tema, but found plenty more. “In one port yard alone, we identified 75 cars,” he says. “The majority were Canadian.” Thanks to the extensive networking that comes with the territory, Chowdhury knew a Canuck who'd be interested in those vehicles. He phoned Ben Jillett.

A native of Glace Bay, N.S., Jillett worked 31 years as an RCMP officer in Ontario before joining the Insurance Bureau of Canada as an auto-theft investigator in 2001. Like Chowdhury, he specializes in repatriations. Chowdhury sent the vehicle information numbers (unique serial identifiers, also known as VINs, found on dashboards and elsewhere) of five of the automobiles to Jillett, who works out of the province of Ontario's auto-theft team office in Mississauga. Jillett checked them on an Internet database called the Canadian Police Information Centre. “One of these cars was stolen in front of [Toronto's] City Hall,” says Jillett. “One was from the Downsview parking authority.” One Infiniti had parted company with its owner just two weeks earlier. None of them had any business being in Tema.

Tema has long been a transshipment point in the ever-shifting global trade in hot wheels. Ghana offers many of the crucial ingredients: shaky rule of law, pervasive corruption and proximity to the vibrant black markets of West Africa. (Chowdhury claims that eight of 10 vehicles on the region's roads are stolen.) Criminals have built efficient global networks through which they can ship stolen vehicles–an industry worth US$19 billion annually, according to Interpol. That's nearly as much as Sun Life Financial, one of Canada's largest companies, earned in revenue last year.

The insurance industry has little choice but to get organized, partnering with law enforcement, customs authorities, finance companies and others, to fight back. Jillett and Chowdhury are on the front lines, building their own communication channels to monitor the flow of stolen vehicles. They constantly exchange information about which groups are active where, attempting to see trends in shipments so that they can retrieve as many as possible. Each successful repatriation disrupts criminal groups, resulting in anything from mild inconvenience to death for the perpetrators.

But for organized crime, vehicle theft remains both low-risk and highly profitable. Police and customs authorities have other priorities; some can be bribed to look the other way. Auto manufacturers, for whom such activities can increase demand, have little incentive to tackle the problem head-on. And insurance cushions consumers by spreading the burden of what otherwise would be a very expensive problem. At best, Jillett and Chowdhury can make a dent.

It begins with an empty driveway, perhaps, or the parking space where you could have sworn you left your car. You rack your brain: Did your spouse take it shopping? Did you park it in front of Home Depot, or was it Staples? Gradually, the realization sets in–some broken glass, perhaps, or the noises you vaguely recall hearing in the early morning hours. Your vehicle was there, but no longer.

If this were the 1970s, chances would be pretty good that your car was used for joyriding (or, as police prefer to call it, “destination driving”), or perhaps as wheels for the commission of a crime. You'd have a fair shot at getting it back, albeit with an empty gas tank, a smashed steering column and possibly a massively inflated odometer. But times have changed. Of the 160,000 vehicles stolen in Canada last year, roughly 30% weren't recovered. Of the more than 10,000 stolen in Toronto in 2005, about a fifth were not recovered. More than 14,000 went missing in Montreal, where recovery rates are said to be among the worst in the country. “Of the non-recovered vehicles, we're looking at 30% to 40% being exported,” says Jillett. The Insurance Bureau of Canada estimates that 20,000 stolen cars skip the country each year.

For that, you can thank today's more determined, better organized breed of car thief. “They're the only ones able to make cars disappear,” says Sam Cosentino, who until this year was one of the lead investigators of the Toronto Police Service's auto squad. An RCMP study attributed a surge in auto theft during the 1990s to increasing involvement by organized crime. Several years ago, Statistics Canada estimated one in five auto thefts could be attributed to organized crime groups. Eastern European syndicates and outlaw biker gangs are said to be among the more sophisticated participants.

It's not that thefts are rising. There was a surge between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s during which they nearly doubled, but then the nation's driveways and parking lots became technological battlegrounds. The last decade has seen a proliferation of security devices for vehicles, from steering-wheel locks to alarm systems and GPS tracking units. All such systems can be defeated. Thieves can cut a steering wheel to remove the locking clubs, and they can silence alarms by cutting a wire or two. Some thieves leave stolen vehicles to “cool off” in parking lots and side streets before taking them to their ultimate destinations, lest a hidden GPS tracking unit lead police directly to them. But such devices make boosting cars more challenging.

The dreaded immobilizer is today's gold standard in anti-theft technology. An immobilizer disconnects a vehicle's fuel supply, ignition and starter unless it can communicate with a transponder in the ignition key. It has been credited with changing the dynamics of auto theft and has contributed considerably to a halt and reversal of growth in theft rates–a magic bullet, of sorts. Today's cars are harder to steal, and it shows: according to the IBC, theft rates decreased about 1% a year between 1993 and 2003.

Take Winnipeg, a city that has endured Canada's highest rates of vehicle theft per capita. According to Manitoba Public Insurance's list of 150 “high-risk” vehicles, if a Winnipegger owns a Dodge Caravan, Chrysler Intrepid or Jeep Grand Cherokee in the model years between 1990 and 1994, odds are one in eight that it will be stolen. But of 150 models listed as high-risk, just seven were built after 2000 (and all of those were Chryslers). Manitoba Public Insurance recently initiated a program to encourage owners of high-risk vehicles to install immobilizers. The federal government, meanwhile, decreed that all new vehicles sold in Canada must be equipped with immobilizers starting Sept. 1, 2007. Gradually, Canada's fleet of cars, trucks, vans and SUVs should become more resistant to classic smash-and-grab thefts, and some predict joyriders will be halted entirely.

That's good news for Western Canada, where the theft problem is largely attributable to joyriding. But according to Criminal Intelligence Service Canada, large cities in Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia face a different problem. Organized crime groups are believed to be more active in thefts there, thanks in part to readily accessible ports. Recovery rates are consequently lower. “Many of the luxury vehicles stolen each year by organized crime groups are destined for export,” CISC said in a report. “The vehicles are largely destined for eastern Europe, Russia, the Middle East, South America, the Caribbean, Africa and Southeast Asia.” In other words, pretty much everywhere.

Immobilizers haven't stopped export activity, because criminals got creative. “We have more occurrences where thieves use other means of getting vehicles,” says Wayne Somers, manager of insurer TD Meloche Monnex's special investigation unit. The trick to defeating an immobilizer is to get the transponder. One way to do that is to break into the owner's house when the car is in the driveway and the owner is home. People are pretty predictable. The key might be in a basket near the front door, or on a hook in the kitchen, or in a coat pocket. If all else fails, thieves have been known to wake the owner for a dangerous confrontation. They sometimes also stroll around high-income neighbourhoods on a winter's morning, looking for owners who've started vehicles and gone back inside to wait for them to warm up. Old-fashioned carjackings do the trick. And using counterfeit documents, thieves may be able to go to a dealership and obtain spare keys for a car they have their eyes on.

If stealing a car seems too difficult, thieves can always just buy one like everybody else. In a competitive market rife with incentives, many car dealers are eager–even desperate–to unload stock. An organized criminal can convince a foot soldier to obtain financing and buy a vehicle. That may require counterfeit letters from employers and maybe some fake tax forms. After making payments for a few months, the owner can hand over the vehicle to the theft ring in exchange for a few thousand dollars. He'll report the vehicle missing and make an insurance claim. Police call this an “owner give-up.”

Crime syndicates have even been known to create vehicles out of thin air. With counterfeit paperwork, scammers can register a non-existent vehicle with a transportation ministry and then obtain insurance. They can then rent an identical vehicle, slap their own plates on it, photograph it and show it off to friends. Some deliberately acquire parking tickets and drive on toll roads–all to convince others they actually owned the vehicle. After a few months, they report the vehicle stolen and collect on the insurance.

Barriers to entry in this business are not unduly daunting. You can pay a petty criminal $500 to $2,500 each time he delivers a desired model. Theft rings are selective. “There's no point stealing a vehicle they can't sell,” says Jillett. “They'll have a list of vehicles. They've got kids between 13 and their early 20s ripping these cars off and bringing them back to designated areas, where they're paid.”

Auto theft attracts organized crime partly because perpetrators are rarely caught. That's evident when you consider clearance rates, a measure of how many crimes are solved. In the late 1970s, about 27% of motor vehicle thefts were cleared. That rate fell to 12% by the early 2000s. By comparison, about 30% of property crimes and 70% of violent crimes have been cleared in recent years.

The lack of prosecutions is partly attributable to the difficulty of catching car thieves. Cosentino says that even when police find someone in possession of stolen vehicles, they can't necessarily prove that person actually stole them. But another reason is that not many police officers are trying. In the late 1980s, the Toronto Police Service had around 30 investigators dedicated to auto theft; now there are just eight. Montreal disbanded its auto squad several years ago. So, if your minivan is stolen today, don't expect an in-depth investigation. In fact, in some jurisdictions you'll just report the incident over the phone. Somers, an ex-cop, sees a problem. “You can report your car stolen at a mall, tell the police officer you've been shopping all day, but have no product to show him,” says Somers. “Nobody asks to see your car keys–which you may have given to somebody. All those things could be captured in a face-to-face interview, but it doesn't happen anymore.”

When thieves are caught, punishments are often light. Imagine police catch someone in possession of a stolen Mercedes, and link him to its disappearance. The perpetrator is looking at a charge of theft over $5,000. “Would you rather be caught with $150,000 of crack cocaine, $150,000 of guns or a $150,000 Mercedes-Benz?” asks Cosentino. “With auto theft, a lot of times you'll get very little or no sentence. If you have no criminal record, in many cases they'll give you a conditional discharge, maybe a suspended sentence. Highly unlikely you'll get a jail term for a first offence.”

When it comes to stocks and bonds, risk and reward are strongly linked. Not so with auto theft. It might cost an organized criminal $1,000 to pay a teenager to steal and deliver a new Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland. (It has an immobilizer, so he'll have to get the keys.) Re-identification of the vehicle, if necessary, could cost $1,500; shipping and handling to a foreign jurisdiction, maybe another $3,000. If the Cherokee fetches $40,000–a solid discount from its retail price–it generates $34,500 in profit. Tax-free. Not infrequently, a vehicle can be sold for twice its domestic retail value in countries where certain models are hard to come by. With margins like that, a well-oiled auto-theft ring can rack up millions in profits within a matter of months. The money can be reinvested in other criminal ventures, such as drugs and gun-running. Indeed, many stakeholders in the fight against auto theft claim the crime's typically non-violent nature masks its sinister effects.

Exporting stolen cars seems, when you think about it, an ideal activity for the diversified modern criminal enterprise. If the flow of vehicles out of Canada is any indication, criminal enterprises have figured this out.

A stolen car that seemingly vanishes from planet Earth generally suffers one of three fates. First, it may be stripped for parts. “Taking off a hood is a matter of four bolts,” says Cosentino. “A door is another four bolts. Seats are another four bolts. Within a matter of minutes, you can have that thing stripped down.” Lucrative markets for parts exist for popular vehicles that have been in production for a few years; a disassembled vehicle can be worth two to three times as much as a whole one.

A second fate is re-identification. Police typically flag the VINs of stolen cars in efforts to thwart their sale to unsuspecting customers. (Buyers of stolen cars risk losing both their money and their wheels; when stolen cars are discovered, police return them to their legal owners.) The problem is that provinces, states and nations often do a poor job of communicating among themselves what happened to particular vehicles. Thieves therefore assign a new VIN–lifted from a wrecked vehicle of the same make and model, for example, or a car known to have been legitimately exported from Canada–to conceal its dubious lineage. Since that costs as much for a 1991 Chevy Cavalier as it does a 2006 BMW M5, it makes sense for thieves to focus on more expensive vehicles. A re-VINed auto can then be resold, domestically or abroad.

For the profit-minded criminal, nothing beats export. There are plenty of ways to get cars out of Canada. For ultra-expensive vehicles like Ferraris and Lamborghinis, it may make sense to fly them out. Drivers can take them across the Canada-U.S. border with ease. Rail is a great way to move them about, too, and if they're going any distance, they'll probably travel by sea at some point. Exporters can mix and match as appropriate. One eastern European ring shipping to Latin America, for example, drove vehicles across the Canada-U.S. border and shipped them by container out of New Jersey.

As with more pedestrian forms of trade, much of automotive contraband travels via container ship. Vancouver's port is ideal for vehicles destined for Asia. Halifax works when they're going to eastern Europe. And Montreal, Canada's busiest port, is often used for destinations in the Middle East and West Africa. Some vehicles are simply driven on to a ship and driven off at the destination–a “roll on/roll off”–but that means it's visible. A shipping container is more discreet. A 20-foot container can hold one vehicle, a 40-foot container two–or even four, if thieves suspend two from the ceiling.

Theft rings are typically less than forthcoming about the true nature of their shipments, so fraudulent customs declarations are common. In 2004, for example, Ghanaian authorities intercepted four 40-foot containers at the platform of Maersk Shipping Co., at Tema. The documentation stated that each container carried 400 bales of used clothing from Montreal. In fact, they contained no more than two bales. The rest of the cargo space was dedicated to beds, wheelchairs–and stolen vehicles. Shipping companies are sometimes happy to look the other way. Says Jillett: “We have identified a number of freight forwarders that deal with these people, with minimal questions asked.”

Will the loot be detected? Not likely. One ship can carry as many as 7,000 containers. The Canada Border Services Agency has more than 100 X-ray systems, a dozen gamma-ray units, remotely operated submersibles and tons of other inspection gadgetry, but most of it is trained on incoming goods. Of all the contraband CBSA watches out for, stolen vehicles take a backseat to cocaine, guns, tobacco and jewelry.

Calls to end this trade often lack a sense of urgency, in part because theft rings aren't the only beneficiaries. Each time a vehicle is stolen and exported, it amounts to a near zero-sum game. Automakers operating in destination countries can be hurt–General Motors and Ford, for example, saw a thriving market in contraband vehicles cut in to their businesses in Russia. But in Canada, a net exporter of stolen vehicles, the global theft trade probably benefits manufacturers and car dealers, as Canadians replenish their denuded driveways. In fact, makers have even been accused outright of facilitating the trade. “If a vehicle is stolen and it's only got one key, well, [manufacturers in West African] countries will supply a spare key and radio codes, things like that,” Chowdhury alleges. “Manufacturers are not too bothered, from what I see.”

Provided they're adequately insured, the former owners typically aren't devastated, either. Canadian policyholders shell out an average of $48 a year in premiums for theft coverage. That may seem irksome until one's car goes missing–at which point it looks more like a steal. When an insured has a depreciation waiver, she can buy the equivalent brand-new model and effectively forgo several years of depreciation, wear and tear.

Police found the engine–and only the engine–from my wife's Honda Civic at a Toronto chop shop this year. I accompanied her to a police station to sign the necessary legal paperwork. Other owners signing their documents seemed disinterested in the fate of their vehicles–except one woman, who asked whether police had found a set of golf clubs in the trunk. (They hadn't, because the vehicles had been completely dismantled long before the operation was busted.) For most, the lost vehicles seemed ancient history, dimly remembered inconveniences suffered months or years before. Everybody's happy.

Well, almost everybody.

This summer, professionals from the insurance industry gathered in Ottawa with police, customs officials, representatives of finance companies and others from Canada, the U.S. and Mexico at the annual conference of the North American Export Committee. NAEC brings together stakeholders to discuss trends in the burgeoning trade of stolen vehicles and try to forge plans to curtail it. Its conferences (along with those of other organizations like the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators, which met in Winnipeg in August) provide a forum to make contacts, build relationships and exchange information.

NAEC decries the lack of urgency with which society combats auto theft, and emphasizes that profits from the trade funnel directly into other illicit activities, such as arms, narcotics and terrorism. The latter, in particular, played high on the conference agenda. Virtually every speaker–including federal Minister of Public Safety Stockwell Day, who made a brief appearance–mentioned an alleged link between auto theft and terrorist activity. “We know the links are there,” said Greg Terp, NAEC's chairman.

Have al-Qaida and Hezbollah broken out the jimmy rods? It is true that stolen vehicles have been used in a number of attacks against Middle Eastern politicians, including the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. He was killed by a Mitsubishi Canter reportedly laden with 1,000 kilograms of trinitrotoluene, in February 2005–the vehicle had been stolen in Japan. But little proof exists to show that global terrorism has turned to auto theft for financing in a big way. Stewart Bell, a reporter with the National Post, gave a long speech on terrorist financing to NAEC conference delegates. Tellingly, he barely mentioned auto theft. “There have been a number of examples” of terrorist groups involved in auto theft, he said afterward, “but, it's not something we've seen a lot of.”

Even if the role of terrorist groups in auto theft is unquantifiable, the impact of theft on Canadian insurers is measurable. They must pay out claims on stolen vehicles, which tally to about $600 million annually. (The Insurance Corp. of British Columbia, Crown corporation that provides universal insurance to that province's motorists, claims that theft cost it $86 million last year.) That cost, of course, is passed on to policyholders, but higher insurance fees stifle demand. The costs of underwriting, claims adjustments and administration resulting from theft costs the industry dearly.

IBC was instrumental in lobbying for mandatory immobilizers. It is also pushing the Canada Border Services Agency to step up efforts to contain the export of stolen autos. The industry is also bent on increasing penalties handed down to thieves. At present, people found stealing cars are typically charged with one of two crimes: theft under $5,000 or theft over $5,000. The IBC wants a separate section of the Criminal Code dealing with auto theft. “In the U.S., they have a specific offence usually referred to as grand theft auto,” says Somers. “That tells the court right away that it's an auto theft, and they punish more severely by virtue of that. We need the same kind of law in Canada.”

Recent years have seen a number of bills addressing auto theft get introduced in the House of Commons. Last year, then-Justice Minister Irwin Cotler proposed an amendment to the criminal code to criminalize the removal or alteration of VINs. It reached second reading before this year's change of government.

With criminal penalties widely viewed as inadequate, ICBC recently opted to pursue auto thieves through civil litigation. In September, the ICBC announced “Project No Free Ride,” under which it plans to sue thieves in British Columbia to recover the entire cost of a claim. A civil judgment remains in force for 20 years, and ICBC can cancel driver's licences and insurance until claims are paid, so the organization believes it has considerable powers of persuasion. It threatens to go after thieves even if they haven't been convicted or even charged.

Notwithstanding such efforts, vehicles leave Canada's shores every day, and perpetrators are rarely charged. Ben Jillett is the industry's last line of defence.

Thanks to the global nature of the stolen-autos trade, Jillett's job sounds like something out of a bad James Bond movie. He once recovered 19 Audis from Hong Kong in a single shipment. He recently retrieved three vehicles from Jamaica, another six from Lithuania. He's built a reputation for recovering vehicles from jurisdictions that were previously seen as off limits–like Panama, Mexico and Hong Kong–often by hammering out new co-operation agreements with local police and governments and then using them to get his way. Cambodian customs officials seized a dozen Canadian vehicles–including a Hummer and a Cadillac–in the port of Kompong Som, in August. “We estimate there is approximately $750,000 in stolen vehicles,” says Jillett of the Cambodian haul. He's co-ordinating with international RCMP offices, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the anti-gang department of the Montreal Police to secure their return.

Jillett estimates that, in a good year, he recovers up to 150 of the 800 to 1,000 stolen vehicles brought back to Canada. He's well-known to insurance companies for that reason. “We hear from Ben from time to time when they've recovered one of our vehicles in some faraway land,” says TD's Somers. “He has done a fantastic job of getting treaties in place for countries we never were able to get vehicles back from before.” Jillett's track record rests largely on his ability to make friends and mine them for information and assistance. The more contacts he makes around the world, the more likely it is he'll learn about specific vehicles found outside Canada–and have friends who can help him get them back.

When a stolen vehicle is located overseas, Jillett must establish that his client owns it. As far as Canadian law is concerned, things are pretty straightforward: if an insurance company pays out a claim on a missing vehicle, it assumes ownership. But every country has unique laws and requirements, and plenty of countries won't recognize that principle. If a stolen Canadian vehicle is found in possession of an Andorran, for example, who bought the vehicle in good faith, that person gets to keep the car. An Estonian who has managed to keep his for five years, is similarly acknowledged as the rightful owner. Jillett must gather up police reports, affidavits and other documentation and have them translated into foreign languages, and even then it's sometimes not enough.

If he's successful, the vehicles are typically placed in containers and shipped back to Canada, eventually winding up at a bonded warehouse for inspection by the provincial auto-theft team. Because the vehicle may have been re-VINed, an investigator will check secondary numbers–numbers etched on windows, or parts markings on the engine and transmission, for example–to verify the vehicle's identity. Once cleared, the vehicle will be shipped off to its legal owner.

Insurance companies typically auction off recovered vehicles to offset claims costs. “It doesn't come anywhere near paying for a claim,” concedes Somers. “Most people have replacement cost or a depreciation waiver on [newer] vehicles.” So if a 2004 BMW insured by a TD subsidiary is stolen, the company will have to pay up for a comparable new model–say, $60,000. If the vehicle is later recovered, it has depreciated considerably. Its value has been further compromised because it has been branded as a recovered stolen vehicle. It might sell for $15,000, Somers says. Worse, the insurance company gets stuck with the investigation, storage and shipping costs–which can range between $4,000 and $6,000. But it's better than nothing. “We've turned millions and millions of dollars back into the insurance companies' bottom lines,” Jillett says.

Successful repatriations have the added benefit of inconveniencing theft rings. More often than not the inconvenience is minor and the rings simply write off their losses as a cost of doing business. But because stolen cars are often sold in advance of shipment–sometimes before they're even stolen–criminals can find themselves in dire straits. “These guys have spent the money as soon as it's received, whether it's paying out the container fee or the ground troops,” Chowdhury explains. “If that consignment is then intercepted, they need to pay that money back. Bear in mind that the people they're selling to are usually people in power. They've just signed their death warrant. If they fail to deliver, they'll get a beating or they'll be shot.” He adds: “This year alone, we could be responsible for two people having their lives taken away because their consignments were intercepted.”

Jillett's and Chowdhury's networks are expanding, but still ineffective in places like Ghana. If the vehicles discovered by Chowdhury at Tema had instead been found in a G8 country, securing their return would have been reasonably straightforward. But in West Africa, things get murkier.

Chowdhury managed to get his six vehicles returned to clients. Armed with stolen-vehicle reports and other documentation obtained from Jillett, he also slapped seizure notices on the windshields of some of the stolen cars from Ontario and Quebec. “I'm just taking these ones for Ben,” he said while filming the lot. But it wasn't enough. After Chowdhury left, the cars disappeared into Ghana's black market, joining countless others. “To our distaste and dissatisfaction, they walked,” Chowdhury says bitterly. “Somebody was paid off out there.”

His attempts to build relationships there were similarly thwarted. Chowdhury brought an Internet-enabled laptop as a gift to authorities. He hoped they would use it to access foreign stolen-vehicle databases to check VINs of incoming vehicles, so that they could let others in the theft investigation community know when stolen cars were found entering Ghana. “Unfortunately, that came around to slap us on the face,” Chowdhury says. “The authorities down there swanned off the laptop and we never saw it again.”

Jillett is still trying to cultivate contacts in the region. One, a new RCMP liaison officer in Morocco, has suggested he and a team of colleagues visit Ghana and provide training to police working Tema. So far, he's made little progress. “They have hundreds and hundreds of stolen Canadian vehicles over there,” Jillett complained this summer. “We've recovered none. We've told them we're interested in having them returned, but we're still waiting for that callback saying, 'This is what we need. Let's get on with it.'”

After two years applying pressure through Interpol and other channels, Jillett finally got his callback in September. Officials in Ghana offered to help repatriate five stolen Canadian vehicles held at Tema. Jillett is skeptical about whether that marks a sea change in repatriations from Ghana. “A couple of the cars might not have much salvage value left,” he says, noting that several are missing windshields, side windows and seats. “We'll have to go further along to see if it's actually going to work. But at least they're holding out the olive branch to us.”

Similarly, Jillett and Chowdhury have made little progress in the latest sexy stolen vehicle market: the Middle East. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, Chowdhury has seen huge volumes entering Iraq. Mercedes sedans are popular, but SUVs and commercial vehicles are also in demand. “It started with local Iraqis,” says Chowdhury. “Then the Kurds. Then the Syrians and the Lebanese. And during the last 18 months, we've also kept a watchful eye on the East Africans, who can facilitate vehicles into East Africa, clear the paperwork and then ship them directly into the Middle East. Everyone's involved.”

Chowdhury believes some of the importers are affiliated with terrorist groups. One case he worked on involved a vehicle equipped with a GPS tracking system, and stolen in Germany. He followed it as it travelled to Turkey and into Syria. “It went into Iraq and ended up down in Basra,” he says. “We then lost the signal. We were then notified by the military forces that it had been used as a kamikaze vehicle, killing 14 soldiers.” Iraq is lawless, but Chowdhury fights fire with fire. He's recovered two vehicles from there so far–but not through official channels. Both times, he infiltrated the country, secured the help of the coalition forces to find the cars and made a beeline for the border. In effect, he stole them back.

Jillett, meanwhile, has seen an estimated $5 million worth in luxury vehicles, obtained through financing fraud in the Greater Toronto Area, flowing into Middle Eastern countries. “They're going into Jordan, Dubai and other places,” he says. “I've never seen this number of cars going into the area. We've got to find out what's going on here.” He's feeding information on stolen Canadian vehicles into European databases. “So if they show up anywhere, or anybody runs those VIN numbers, hopefully they will pop up. At least we'll know what we're working with.”

Plenty of cars still escape his grasp, but Jillett remains undeterred. “We're showing the organized crime guys that they're not profiting by keeping these vehicles,” he says, with satisfaction. “We're taking them all back.”