Piracy: Vehicle Theft Takes a Deadly Turn

By Kahoe, E. Michael; Apple, Howard B. et al. | USA TODAY, September 1993 | Go to article overview
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Piracy: Vehicle Theft Takes a Deadly Turn


Kahoe, E. Michael, Apple, Howard B., Barrett, Wayne M., USA TODAY


Even if drivers do everything possible to protect themselves, there is no guarantee they can avoid becoming victims.

On Sept. 8, 1992, Pamela Basu, a 34-year-old research chemist from Savage, Md., was driving her daughter to pre-school when she was accosted at a stop sign by two men who pushed her out of the auto. The terror that followed, which included Basu being dragged by the car for almost two miles while trying to save her child, and having her daughter thrown out of the vehicle while still strapped to her car seat, left an indelible mark on the public. Pamela Basu died at the scene, but her child miraculously survived. From that time, the word car jacking has been etched firmly in the mind of anyone who drives.

Despite several highly publicized incidents like the Pamela Basu case, carjacking represents less than two percent of all vehicle thefts in the US. Further, of the total carjackings nationally, less than three percent end in violence. Nevertheless, the sheer horror of Pamela Basu's death brought this crime to the forefront of the public's conscience and cleared the way for the passage of the Federal carjacking law. The case also induced the passage of local statutes throughout the country, enhancing the criminal penalties for carjacking. Just as important, it served as the catalyst for police departments in every part of the country to rededicate their resources to carjackings in order to bring this violent crime to a standstill.

Vehicle theft always has been a serious and costly problem in the US., with a record-high 1,661,738 cases in 1991. That translates to one car stolen every 19 seconds, or 4,550 autos daily. In 1991, one out of every 117 registered vehicles was stolen. According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, vehicle theft has risen consistently, and, between 1984 and 1991, it increased by 61%. Until recently, though, vehicle theft was just a "property crime," and was not associated with violence. Now, however, the motives for vehicle theft have changed.

From the 1940s to the early 1960s, the vast majority of stolen vehicles were traced to joyriders seeking transportation for pleasure or felons using them for a getaway from a crime scene. The only danger to the American public occurred from accidents that resulted from the thieves' lack of driving skills or efforts to elude capture.

Beginning in the late 1960s, law enforcement agencies observed a drastic reduction in the recovery rate - from nine of 10 in 1967 to six of 10 today. These statistics revealed a shift in the motive for vehicle theft, from a source of transportation to a means of easy profit. Law enforcement investigations began to identify the existence of professional and organized groups involved in commercial theft.

Some of the more frequent criminal operations include "chop shops," where stolen vehicles are disassembled for the purpose of selling their component parts (it is estimated that the component parts are valued at three times the original price for the vehicle); "salvage switching," in which the identification number (VIN) is removed from a salvaged vehicle and, with its accompanying title, placed on a similar stolen vehicle, thereby hiding its stolen status; insurance fraud, whereby individuals "give up" their vehicle to a middleman who, in turn, delivers it to other commercial thieves; and exportation, where thieves either drive the stolen vehicle to another country or ship it overseas under concealment in containers.

Vehicle theft is highly profitable, uncomplicated, and a low risk. It takes only minutes to break into a vehicle, and most of the parts are unmarked. The chance of getting caught remains low because vehicle theft maintains a low priority within police departments, who must focus their limited resources on more important matters such as drug trafficking and violent crimes. As a natural consequence, in 1991, law enforcement agencies nationwide recorded a mere 14% clearance rate.

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Piracy: Vehicle Theft Takes a Deadly Turn
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