The Car-Theft Industry

It is risky these days to have a nice foreign car in Moscow -- or even a new Zhiguli for that matter. Considering the prices cars fetch, high import duties and the monopoly of domestic production, cars have become extremely attractive to criminals. Thefts have become more frequent and more brazen: as many as 50 every day in Moscow alone.

The capital now boasts whole brigades of professional mechanics with the latest equipment who do nothing but process stolen cars. This assembly-line stolen car industry is being run by Moscow's many criminal organizations, which have old and strong ties with the State Automobile Inspectorate, GAI.

Several types of auto theft are being practiced in the capital. First, their are thefts "to order": a client with documents for an older car orders a new car of the same model. The cost: 30 to 50 percent of the retail price of the car. This includes altering the serial numbers on the engine to match the old documentation and, if necessary, repainting. A car may also be superficially damaged and then repaired to make it harder to spot as new.

The second type of car theft is for parts or for "export." In a day or two a stolen foreign or domestic car for which spare parts are hard to find can be completely dismantled in shops outside the city. The chassis is then dumped somewhere while the parts end up at one of the markets in Solntsevo, near the Severyanin train platform, and elsewhere. Among the best customers for these parts are Moscow's auto service stations, including some of the city's most prestigious ones specializing in foreign cars.

Russia's trafficking of stolen cars has taken on an almost amusing character. Cars from Siberia and the Far East are sent to central Russia by train and air (there are both civilian and military means of doing this), while cars from Moscow and St. Petersburg head to the Urals and to Central Asia.

If your car is stolen for export, the chances of recovering it are slim. However, sources in the Interior Ministry tell me that it is possible to get such cars back, but only if one has excellent connections in law-enforcement agencies and can use them within one or two days of the theft. He says that practically all the brigades involved in this activity are known to the authorities, and there are even "financial arrangements" between them.

There is no defense against these thefts. Disabling an alarm takes two to three minutes, depending on the complexity of the system. The radio-controlled models that are so fashionable these days can be turned off using a special portable scanner, which costs not very much more than the alarm systems themselves. "All you do is program it for the right wave-band and stand there until the car blinks its headlights a couple of times. Then you can just get to work," one professional explained to me.

What about mechanical devices that block a car's steering wheel? Thieves are equipped with powerful electric saws that can cut through steering-wheel locks in seconds. The most effective systems seem to be those that block the fuel supply, but the bottom line is that if thieves have their eyes on your car, it's gone.

However, if your car suddenly disappears off the street, don't jump to the conclusion that it has been stolen. It is possible that it was towed away by GAI. Perhaps they decided that it was illegally parked and hauled it off to their impound lot on Ryabinovaya Ulitsa. When this happens, GAI notifies neither the owner nor the departments that are searching for stolen cars.

I know one foreign journalist who spent two months making the rounds of various departments looking for his missing car. Finally, he was advised to call the Ryabinovaya Ulitsa lot and, sure enough, it was there. This was particularly lucky because, as the GAI officer told him, "Some 'owners' with documents had already tried to collect the car." There is a particularly amusing ending to the story: A few months later, the journalist happened to be driving the car past a GAI post outside the city when he was stopped and it was discovered that his car was still listed as stolen. After he refused to pay a $300 bribe, he was thrown in a holding cell for several hours.

Moscow has many small automobile dealerships with advertisements that read: "Direct from our storage lot in Moscow, documentation in half an hour, while you wait." Many of them earn extra money by selling thieves the addresses of their customers, spare keys and even documentation for cars that have not yet been stolen -- but soon will be. Sometimes, dishonest employees at major dealerships have been engaged in this sort of practice.

Cars involved in these scams are usually stolen on the very first night. Teams of thieves methodically make the rounds according to the list of addresses provided, picking up the cars as they go. Moreover, they are clever enough to exploit technicalities in the legal code. That is, one thief will open the door and a second will get in and drive off. If they are caught, the first thief most likely will only be charged with vandalism for breaking the lock, while the second might even get off entirely: "I found this car just standing there with the doors open, so I thought I'd better take it to the police ..."

Is there anything you can do to make your car safe? A good, secure parking lot costs at least 10,000-30,000 rubles a day. A real garage costs at least as much as the car itself. In Soviet times, the right license plate number could guarantee safety. The numbers "03-03" and "22-66" signalled clearly that you had good connections in the right places. Now, the equivalent numbers, "777" and "010," offer no such protection. Nowadays, it is probably wiser to walk.

Vladimir Gubarev is a reporter for RIA Novosti. He contributed this comment to the Moscow Times.