Five years ago, Sagamihara City resident Atsuko Kuwata's Toyota Land cruiser was stolen. In May of this year, the car turned up at an unexpected place: Nairobi, Kenya.
A man working at a local auto parts shop in Nairobi had purchased the Land Cruiser from a used car dealership. Shown a photo, Kuwata immediately recognized the car, since she had configured it with options for snowy road conditions.
"It's really strange to see a car like that in Africa, of all places," she tells Takarajima (October).
Kuwata's 4X fell victim to an international network of auto thieves operating in Japan. Adept at defeating immobilizer anti-theft devices, the cars stolen wind up in the unlikeliest of places.
A fatal traffic accident in Nagoya last February, when a car being driven by a Brazilian of Japanese descent slammed into three pedestrians, put investigators on the trail. Upon interrogating the suspect, police found he belonged to a ring of 49 car thieves suspected of having stolen some 650 vehicles valued at 1.8 billion yen over the previous five years.
The gang's modus operandi was for Brazilians to steal the cars, and deliver them to Afghans, who would disassemble them in chop shops and store the components in shipping containers until they could be transported abroad.
The thieves were able to steal vehicles such as Land Cruisers and Nissan Skylines equipped with electronic anti-theft devices that prevent their engines from starting unless the correct ID code is input. Currently, some 40% of new vehicles are equipped with such devices, and they have halved the number of thefts compared with five years ago.
But a fiendishly clever device was developed to override anti-theft circuitry. Its existence first became known about 10 years ago when one fell into the hands of law enforcement officials in Germany. Current versions of the code-cracking "red box," believed made in China, sell on the Internet for as little as 20,000 or 30,000 yen.
To crack down on exports of stolen cars, Japanese customs agents are supposed to inspect the vehicle's body number and verify it's not on a list of reported thefts. But the numbers are only stamped on a single part, and disassembly forces customs staff to hunt for needles in haystacks.
The next step for the stolen vehicle is Dubai, UAE, which is said to be the world's largest marketplace for used cars. There, the components are reassembled, given a new coat of paint and re-exported.
Shin Inoue, a Japanese working in Dubai, has seen such shops and was impressed by how well they restore the cars. "They do a beautiful job fixing up beat-up cars," he tells Takarajima. "Their techniques are so good it's frightening."
"In Dubai, if a potential customer tells one of these operators, 'I want one of these,' he'll arrange to have one stolen," Inoue adds.
In east Africa four years ago, checks at roadblocks operated jointly by INTERPOL and local police departments identified over 1,000 vehicles as having been reported stolen. Among the owners of the stolen models were one of that country's cabinet ministers and a three-time winner of the Boston Marathon. But because of the complexities of investigation and the chain of evidence, foreign police seldom act on requests for cooperation with their Japanese counterparts.
Journalist Takeshi Natsuhara says the stolen car market has shifted to Dubai and Africa since 2000, following adoption of market economies in Russia and mainland China, which had previously been the destinations for vehicles purloined in Japan.
According to customs data from the Ministry of Finance, 89,966 used vehicles were exported to the UAE in 2009. Other African destinations included South Africa (55,304 units, 3rd place); Kenya (44,699 units, 6th place); Uganda (17,637 units, 12th place); and Tanzania (17,609 units, 13th place). The article did not speculate on what percentage of these were stolen.© Japan Today