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How Britain’s stolen Range Rovers and Rolls-Royces ended up on the streets of Moscow

stolen rolls royce
Police have recovered millions of pounds worth of stolen luxury cars, such as this Rolls-Royce found in an industrial site in Tilbury - Essex Police

Upon first inspection, the red shipping container sitting in an Essex storage site would have looked unremarkable but the police officers who opened it up knew better.

Acting on a tip, they emptied out stacks of bicycles and white goods to reveal the real, hidden cargo: three stolen Range Rovers, wrapped up in mattresses and rugs, worth a combined £170,000.

More have followed since that discovery in June 2022 and the tempo is increasing.

Other discoveries include: Bentley, Audi and Toyota cars worth £250,000 sandwiched into a container together; a £300,000 Rolls-Royce Dawn, nestled among the remains of 13 other chopped up cars; and high-end Lexus Saloons stacked like cards on top of one another.

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Last year, Essex Police’s stolen vehicle intelligence unit intercepted more than 60 containers like this before they were exported, carrying 240 cars worth around £13m.

They are almost always disguised under false papers and usually headed for destinations in the Middle East, Africa or Asia, fuelling a lucrative trade in luxury cars and parts that organised criminals are only too pleased to facilitate.

Ferrari
'Sanctions are driving the need for cars and car parts in Russia very hard', one expert says - Essex Police

Why the recent upsurge? At least part of the answer is thought to lie in the conflict raging 1,000 miles away in Ukraine, which has triggered a string of Western sanctions against Russia.

These sanctions aim to not only hurt the Russian economy but also deprive Vladimir Putin’s cronies of the Western luxuries they enjoy so much, not least the expensive cars they drive around Moscow.

It is forcing them to pay more for both their vehicles and the parts to maintain them, which must now be obtained through more complex and riskier means.

One way they are avoiding these sanctions is simply by shipping vehicles to neighbouring ex-Soviet countries and then sending them on to Russia, according to reports.

However, the crackdown is also thought to be fuelling a black market that has prompted gangs to employ blunter tactics: the theft of vehicles from British streets. to be transported to Russia via intermediate destinations. The cars can be shipped whole or they can be broken down into parts to be put back together upon arrival.

“The sanctions are driving the need for cars and car parts in Russia very hard, and that desperation is part of the reason we are seeing more vehicles going out via the Middle East,” says Mike Briggs, an insurance industry veteran who is now UK president of the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators (IAATI).

“It’s a real problem for them at the moment – because anything you see on Russian roads will eventually need spare parts.

“The black market there has always been rife, but now it is getting bigger because of the sanctions, because people still want their luxury cars…and in fact, being able to still get them even now is actually likely to improve your status within Russia.”

There was a 48pc increase in vehicle thefts in the year to the end of September 2023, according to the Crime Survey of England and Wales, rising from 72,000 to 106,000 incidents.

The way criminals typically steal cars goes something like this: a gang receives an order for a certain model of car or parts from an overseas buyer.

They then go hunting for what they need in a big city, such as London, Birmingham or Manchester.

Once they have found their prey – with families and wealthy foreign drivers seen as soft targets – they break into the car, jam and remove any tracking devices they can find, and then park it up somewhere to wait and see whether anyone comes looking for it.

If no one comes, the gangs then strip the car for parts or ready it for export via a container that is often loaded with other metal goods to disguise the real cargo and confuse X-ray scanners

It is then shipped to locations such as Dubai or the Democratic Republic of Congo.

One reason why so many of the cars get through is that only a tiny proportion of containers are ever checked, says Iain McKinlay, chairman of the National Association of Stolen Vehicle Examiners.

By one industry estimate, fewer than five in every 100,000 containers leaving Britain are searched. This is partly because of how disruptive searching more of them would be to trade.

Nationally, there are thought to be just four full-time police officers dedicated to checking containers at Britain’s ports.

Another issue is that many vehicle thefts and recoveries require cross-border cooperation by different police forces – but typically only one will get the credit in statistics, creating few incentives for forces to go the extra mile.

Frustratingly, criminals also cannot be arrested for carrying equipment used to break into cars, while prosecutions for attempting to smuggle or chop up the cars are few and far between, McKinlay adds. Business owners often claim they didn’t know the vehicles were stolen.

“If you get caught with a £5,000 quantity of drugs, you’re going away to jail for a very long time,” the former detective constable explains.

“But if you get caught with a stolen vehicle worth £70,000, you’ll likely just get a slap on the wrist.

“So the gangs have identified there’s a lot of money to be made and that the risk versus the reward is really negligible.”

An industry insider said: “Vehicle crime is almost decriminalised in the UK now.”

They point to figures showing less than 1pc of recorded thefts ever lead to charges.

This is what visibly frustrated the chief executive of Jaguar Land Rover Adrian Mardell in February, when he complained that authorities were effectively giving gangs a free pass by failing to check enough of the shipping containers leaving Britain.

The British car maker is so concerned that it has actually started providing its own funding, understood to be worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, towards police intelligence work to help ensure the problem is tackled.

However, as a shipping source points out, it would be impractical to check every container.

“If you did, you can bet that JLR and the other car makers would be among the first to complain,” the source notes.

Instead, checks must be “intelligence-led” – i.e., based on tip-offs and police investigatory work – unless a new technology solution can be found that allows containers to be checked effectively and swiftly without needing to be opened.

A spokesman for the British Association of Ports said: “Border security and combating illicit trade falls to government agencies who take a risk-based and intelligence-led approach to checks.

“This balances interests of legitimate trade and helps keep costs down for traders.

“The ports industry… is always open to constructive discussions about how we can continue to bear down on smuggling and organised crime, but this must be done in a proportionate manner.”

One potential way to direct more resources to this issue could be to adopt a model used by some US states and Australia, where a small percentage of every car insurance policy goes towards funding anti-vehicle theft police operations, says McKinlay.

That might prove controversial if it pushes up policy costs. But it may prove cheaper in the long run if insurers don’t need to cover as many claims, McKinlay argues.

The cost of vehicle theft and theft from a vehicle hit record levels in 2023, with insurers paying out £669m for claims, according to the Association of British Insurers.

The lobby group says it takes vehicle theft seriously and is “exploring partnerships with the police to help with the recovery of stolen vehicles from ports”, as well as with car manufacturers on prevention.

Ultimately, observers say more resources must be directed towards the problem to have an impact. In Canada, border authorities have done precisely this, setting up a new taskforce with money from insurers that recently targeted the Port of Montreal in a raid earlier this month.

Through searches of 390 shipping containers, they discovered 598 stolen cars worth a total of about £20m.

In the UK, a conference hosted by Toyota in Derby this July will bring together the UK Government, police, car makers and other industry figures to try to address the problem here as well.

To stop the flow of luxury cars to Russia, says Briggs, “we need more training, more police and more technology”.

“This is just business for the gangs. And so long as there is a market and they can get these cars for nothing, why wouldn’t they do it?”

The Home Office said it was cracking down on the use of electronic devices used to steal vehicles by making it an offence to possess them, through new laws in the Criminal Justice Bill that is working its way through Parliament.

A spokesman said forces were also being given more funding to hire frontline police officers, adding: “We have made great progress in tackling vehicle crime, which is down 39pc since 2010.”