CAR cloning gangs are netting profits of more than €200,000 a month as recession-hit motorists seek out bargains in second-hand vehicles.
surge in sales of cars advertised mainly on the internet is providing a financial bonanza for gangs stealing vehicles and then 'ringing' them with fake identities before putting them on the market.
The fraudsters have fine-tuned scams to allow them to turn a theft into a sale in a week. And buyers do not become aware they are victims until they attempt to register newly purchased vehicles in their own names.
The rise in victims left with a five-figure financial loss is worrying the specialist garda unit, which combats the scams.
Detective Sergeant Finbar Garland, who heads the stolen motor vehicles unit, told the Irish Independent last night: "The extent of this crime is becoming a concern to us with so many people eager to find a bargain. But we are making inroads into the gangs involved and have already scored a number of successes."
Det Sgt Garland and his seven-strong team are part of the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation backed-up by the organised crime unit.
Stolen cars are offered for sale on the internet, in particular, and in specialist magazines.
Usually popular family models, including the Volkswagen Passat and Golf, Skoda Octavia and Toyota Auris and Avensis, are offered -- often worth €10,000 to €15,000, depending on the year of manufacture. The garda unit is recovering an average of 15 stolen cars per month and believes two crime gangs, based on the westside and northside of Dublin, are responsible.
The time lapse between the theft and the sale can be days. Det Sgt Garland explained: "A car stolen on a Friday can be modified over the weekend and offered for sale on the Monday."
The vehicle is fitted with a false registration plate, matching a similar model, and the identity number is either replaced or removed while alterations are made to the stamped-in chassis number.
Thieves usually meet buyers on neutral ground like car parks. They insist on being paid in cash and fix a price, which is a little cheaper than the average for the model. The fraudster often claims to be selling the car below price either because he needs immediate cash, or is selling on behalf of a family member who is emigrating.
The garda unit has identified a number of the main players in the west Dublin gang and is preparing a file for the Director of Public Prosecutions.
A recent operation in Balbriggan has also dealt a heavy blow to the northside gang with the recovery of six stolen vehicles and the discovery of the premises being used to alter the identity of the cars.
Another operation, codenamed Swallow, has resulted in the recovery of 72 stolen vehicles since February and has led to 10 arrests.
Working closely with their counterparts in Scotland Yard, the garda unit went to London and identified those behind a well-organised scam in which commercial vans were being stolen by members of a large group of Travellers and then transported here for sale.
The mastermind of that scam is a Traveller, who was born and reared in England but has close contacts here with families based in the midlands, the west and one of the Border counties.
Gardai have identified more than 70 victims of those thefts and more than 40 innocent buyers, who are now at a loss of thousands of euro after their purchased vehicles were seized.
Recent finds of stolen plant machinery in Balscadden in north county Dublin disclosed further links between gangs here and the UK, with the thefts taking place in England, the machinery given new identities here and then moved out of the State for resale. Co-operation with Belgian police led to the recovery in the port of Antwerp of seven vehicles that were stolen here but were about to be shipped to Africa; while a further four vehicles were found in the English port of Tilbury that were ready to be moved to Africa.
Earlier this year, three Lamborghini tractors, valued at €200,000, were stolen from a showroom in Urlingford, Co Kilkenny, and were subsequently recovered by the unit in Mountmellick, Co Laois. These were being prepared for sale in Romania and gardai arrested one Romanian individual here in connection with the fraud.
More than 100 John Deere tractors stolen here were recovered in Poland last year but this year's total is less than 50 as a result of close co-operation between gardai and local police.
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