NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — A Cadillac, Mercedes and Lexus were among the stolen vehicles bound for West Africa intercepted by border patrol agents.
Since Oct. 1, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers have seized 16 vehicles from the Port of Norfolk totaling $691,000, including nine in the month of December.
“We are always looking at vehicles every single day,” said Chief Louis Rossero. “We have officers at every single terminal working around the clock.”
Officers say they recovered several high-end models stolen out of the Detroit and Chicago areas, including a 2017 Cadillac Escalade, a 2017 Infinity QX80 and a 2018 Mercedes GLE.
Thieves will target these high-end cars for the profit margins, with cars going for well above the usual market price in the U.S. Supply is low and the demand is high for luxury vehicles in Africa, according to a spokesman with the National Insurance Crime Bureau who spoke with NJ.com
“The vehicles are worth a lot more over there than they are here,” said Rossero. “A vehicle that you would get for $10, $15, $20,000 over here could be worth $30, $40, $50,0000 over there.”
In order to ship a vehicle out of the country, agents say the owner has to present a document showing ownership of the car, such as a bill of sale, but two certified copies of the title. Additionally, the owner has to certify in writing to CBP that the purchase was a bona fide transaction and deliver it at least 72 hours prior to export.
The same is true for export via land and air.
Thieves will sometimes try to change vehicle identification numbers (VIN) and create fraudulent titles to ship the vehicle, according to experts.
Rossero says tracking down the people who stole and shipped the vehicles is not easy.
“A lot of it is offline money transfers and those types of things … and trying to trace the money is always the biggest portion of it,” Rossero said. “It’s very time consuming. It’s very difficult for the investigators.”
The days of simply hot wiring a car are largely in the past, with new car technology such as GPS tracking and engine shutoff without a key or fob deterring many potential criminals. Many times nowadays, lower-level thieves will carjack the owner and sell the vehicle up a chain of command.
“We work with various federal, state and local law enforcement authorities to ensure unauthorized exports are not allowed to leave the country,” said Mark J. Laria, CBP Area Port Director. “CBP is the last line of defense in the export control process, and we do use our authority to inspect, search, detain and seize goods being exported illegally or without proper authorization.”
However, with the shear volume of items going in and out of ports across the country, with many classified under vague cargo titles such as “freight of all kinds,” things can still slip through.
CBP will turn the recovered vehicles over to the Virginia State Police on Thursday and they’ll eventually be returned to their rightful owners.