Diasporian News of Thursday, 1 June 2006

Source: globandmail

Five arrested in Ontario auto-theft scam

Canada -- Five Southern Ontario men - including a Ghanaian-born - face multiple charges, including organized-crime indictments, in an alleged stolen-for-export car-theft ring that police say shipped -- or tried to ship -- scores of expensive cars to Nigeria.

And underlining what is described as a growing trend, most of the 70 vehicles seized from containers in Toronto and Montreal during the six-month investigation were not stolen off the street but rather had been leased or purchased from car dealerships with small down payments and false identification.

The alleged ringleader was arrested Tuesday near his Windsor-area home, as he drove a 2006 Range Rover. The Nigerian-born appeared surprised to see police.

He agreed he was in the export trade, sending goods to Nigeria, but he said communications equipment is his specialty

"He didn't say a hell of a lot," said Ontario Provincial Police Detective Sergeant Dave Childs of the Provincial Auto Theft Team (PATT), which arrested M him.

"He was co-operative, he wasn't belligerent, he wanted his right to counsel."

The remaining accused men include one each from St. Catharines and Brampton and two from Toronto. Three are originally from Nigeria; the fourth was born in Ghana. Their names were not immediately released.

As well, a search warrant was served on the Toronto freight company in whose containers most of the intercepted vehicles were discovered and documents were seized.

The vehicles were being taken from Toronto to Montreal by rail, then shipped to Nigeria via Antwerp, police said.

About half were late-model sport-utility vehicles, many made by Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, BMW and Land Rover, with Japanese sedans accounting for most of the rest.

About 170,000 cars are stolen in Canada each year -- roughly one every three minutes -- with a dollar value of about $600-million in insurance losses. The cost of the thefts rises to about twice that amount if law-enforcement and court expenses are added in.

Of those 170,000, police and insurance experts estimate that about 20,000 are shipped abroad, with luxury four-wheel-drive vehicles favoured by far.

The preferred destinations for the vehicles include Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and West Africa, and the vehicles are most commonly shipped out in containers through the ports of Montreal and Halifax.

The percentage of cars stolen specifically to be smuggled abroad is "significantly higher than it was a decade ago," said Rick Dubin, investigations vice-president of the Insurance Bureau of Canada, who cites a steady growth in the role of organized crime.

Mr. Dubin also points out that the recovery rate is shrinking. In the Greater Toronto Area, upward of 90 per cent of stolen cars used to be found and returned. Now the rate is less than 70 per cent, Mr. Dubin said. In Quebec, it is lower still, he said; fewer than half the cars stolen are recovered.

"When you're not finding the vehicles, that basically means they've either gone to a chop shop or they've been exported."

Another twist is the trend of leasing or buying expensive cars under false names for the purpose of stealing them.

"By the time the financing company finds out something's amiss, a few months have often gone by and they're chasing a ghost," Det. Sgt. Childs said.

As the hub of Canada's stolen-for-export car-theft rings, the GTA is also a big source of cars that are renumbered and sold domestically.

This week, Calgary police announced that three Alberta residents have been charged with selling to unwitting buyers more than $700,000 worth of stolen sport-utility vehicles, including brands such as Mercedes-Benz, Lincoln and Lexus.

Most of those cars are believed to have originated in Ontario, stolen by a crime ring broken up 10 months ago by PATT, which is a joint police team led by the OPP.

But Dubai, Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong were the chief destinations of the 25 cars recovered in that OPP operation, in which eight people were charged.

While organized crime has long been a major player in the export of stolen cars from Canada, a newer worry among police and security analysts is that profits may be fuelling terrorism, particularly in the Middle East.

In Ottawa next week, Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day will address the annual meeting of the North American Export Committee, which tracks the smuggling of North American cars.

The IBC will play host to law-enforcement and insurance-industry visitors from Mexico and Eastern Europe, and one of the key themes of the conference is the link between auto theft and funding for terror groups.

There was nothing to suggest yesterday's arrests involved any terrorism component. Rather, police say they believe this ring was stealing and smuggling the cars for the money.

"From conversations I've had with individuals involved in the sale of automobiles in Nigeria, a vehicle such as a Land Rover over there will sell for $100,000 (U.S.)," said OPP Det. Staff Sgt. Scott Mills, who heads PATT and helped arrest Mr. Eze.

"So if it's stolen and you pay $5,000 for export and duties, you'd realize a $95,000 (U.S.) profit for each one."

As with the other popular foreign destinations, that fat markup primarily reflects the absence of legitimate retailing networks in Nigeria, Det. Staff Sgt. Mills said.

"So it's a commodity that's always going to have a market, because of the huge profit margins."