Why your stolen car may be in West Africa and what's being done about it

Kristin Thorne Image
Thursday, August 3, 2023
How authorities are trying to stop stolen cars from being shipped overseas
Many cars stolen in the Tri-State area have one thing in common. Eyewitness News investigative reporter Kristin Thorne breaks that down.

Some of the cars stolen in the Tri-State area share one thing in common - they end up at the Port of Newark where international criminal organizations ship them to West Africa to be sold at a premium, Eyewitness News has learned.

Eyewitness News investigative reporter Kristin Thorne spent a day with officers from Homeland Security Investigations and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, seeing how they track down and seize shipping containers packed with potentially stolen vehicles.

"A lot of what happens, before we even do those exams, happens before the trucks even get to the port," Newark CBP Port Director TenaVel Thomas explained. "We're able to look at the data - advanced data that we have. We're able to look at trends."

HSI said in 2023, it has already seized about 300 stolen vehicles at the Port of Newark - a 32% increase from last year.

"We're really focusing on the financial nexus that ties into these stolen vehicles," Ricky Patel, special agent in charge of HSI Newark, said.

Federal authorities said stolen vehicles are a threat to national security because the money generated from selling the cars is used to sell and run guns in other countries and has connections to terrorist organizations.

HSI said it believes 10 percent of the country's stolen cars are exported or are attempted to be exported out of the country.

They said the top stolen cars from our area destined for West Africa are BMWs, Land Rovers and Range Rovers because they can be sold for the most money and handle well in rough terrain. Stolen Hondas are typically shipped to the Dominican Republic, they said.

CBP Officer Dean Panzarino showed Eyewitness News how thieves pack stolen cars into shipping containers often hiding them behind mattresses and household goods, like refrigerators and cabinets.

They pack the containers from floor to ceiling in an attempt to hide the stolen vehicles. Sometimes, they even take the cars apart, put them in the containers and rebuild the cars overseas. Many times, he said, thieves will also change the VIN and tags on the cars to make them appear as if they're not stolen.

"Every crew is different," Panzarino said. "Some are more through than others."

HSI said its Auto Export Crimes Task Force has successfully dismantled one criminal organization responsible for the theft of vehicles throughout New York and New Jersey with an intent to export vehicles to West Africa. In addition, they said HSI Newark has successfully disrupted and degraded a transnational criminal organization responsible for the theft and retagging of stolen vehicle for export to the Dominican Republic.

"We don't sleep. We're always watching," Thomas said.

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