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Q&A: Why growing car theft trend could end up taking us all for a ride


Many luxury vehicles are now being stolen to order as demand has soared in Russia

Many luxury vehicles are now being stolen to order as demand has soared in Russia

Many luxury vehicles are now being stolen to order as demand has soared in Russia

Drivers could soon be feeling the impact of the current crime wave in their pockets, as the big rise in the number of vehicles being stolen pushes up the cost of insurance premiums.

So why should Irish motorists be keeping a particularly close eye on their cars these days?

Because the crime that Americans call ‘grand theft auto’ is not just becoming more common, but more sophisticated too – and it’s set to hit all drivers in the pocket.

Almost 1,200 vehicles were stolen in the first quarter of 2022, up a whopping 77pc over the same period last year. While much of that increase can be explained by the easing of Covid restrictions, it’s still a seven-year high.

Nearly seven in 10 cases involved a private car, although robberies of motorcycles and electronic scooters have surged too.

But why might this hurt me even if I don’t become a victim?

Because every driver is likely to pay a price in their motor insurance bills next year. “You simply cannot have this level of theft without knock-on consequences,” a car industry expert said this week.

“Increased risk means increased premium costs – and this is particularly true for people living in areas where the greatest number of car thefts are being reported.”

Which car brands are particularly vulnerable?

If you own a Volkswagen Golf, Volkswagen Passat or Ford Focus, consider yourself warned – they occupy the top three spots in a league table of stolen vehicles compiled by the website MotorCheck.

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However, gardaí warn that crooks are increasingly attracted to older, imported Japanese models too because they’re often not kitted out with engine immobiliser systems.

“You don’t have to own a flashy car to be a victim of vehicle theft,” MotorCheck’s managing director Michael Rochford has pointed out.

“In fact, the most popular vehicles for car thieves tend to fall into line with the most popular brands and models on our roads today.”

Isn’t modern technology supposed to make stealing a car much more difficult?

Yes, but it works both ways. While locking and alarm systems are much more advanced than they were a few years ago, so too are criminals’ methods.

The “traditional” car theft involves breaking down a front door and snatching car keys from a hall table. A much more advanced technique is to use scanning equipment that hijacks the signal as an owner locks their vehicle.

Alternatively, a relay transmitter combined with an amplifier will fool a car into thinking that the keys are right beside it. This process can take less than a minute and be carried out in virtual silence.

“The days of ‘smash and grab’ are over and have been replaced with ‘bounce and roll’,” says Jack Cousens, head of roads policy for the AA in Britain. “As fast as manufacturers try to develop ways to strengthen vehicle security, thieves will work just as hard to beat them.”

So car theft is becoming quite a professional business for some crooks?

Yes. Gardaí believe that a few Irish-based gangs are now specialising in it as an easier alternative to drug smuggling or armed robbery.

A lot of this crime has a strong international dimension, with vehicles being stolen “to order” for black market dealers in Eastern Europe. Recently, demand for illicit luxury cars has soared in Russia due to the international sanctions over Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

The old-fashioned car thief swaps its number plates and log books with another vehicle of the same make and sells it on to an unsuspecting buyer in Ireland. A more modern criminal will transfer their ill-gotten gains to containers and ship them using fake documentation.

Some are broken up instead at secret locations nicknamed “chop shops” and then exported for parts.

What about the more basic phenomenon of young men taking cars for a joyride?

Sadly, this is alive and well in some areas too. The worst recent examples come from west Dublin, where some residents are being regularly terrorised by such activity.

Last January, a large gang stole a car and drove it recklessly up and down the Croftwood area before crashing it into bollards. When local Sinn Féin councillor Daithí Doolan confronted them, he received in his own words “an almighty box” to the back of the head that “almost knocked me out”.

For some criminal boy racers, it seems their main motive is to create a good social media video. One clip from Ballyfermot, which went viral, gives an insight into their mentality, with a teenager commenting excitedly on the garda vehicles in hot pursuit: “The chase is on, boys!”

“These are a new breed of joyriders,” a senior garda source said. “They are doing it for the sport and that is dangerous.”

Clearly these thieves either don’t know or don’t care how traumatic it is for the victim?

So it would seem. To take just one recent case, Urufa Abedin is a single mother living in Drumcondra who bought a Japanese import car for €4,500 last May so she could drive her baby daughter to creche.

Almost immediately, it was stolen and abandoned in Ballybough with a broken ignition switch and the front bumper and lights missing. After spending almost another €1,500 on repairs, Urufa has seen her vehicle vandalised on two separate occasions.

“I can’t even express what I’m going through,” she told the Dublin Live website. “I cry every day. I’m struggling so much.”

If I see a car being taken, what should I do?

While intervening is a natural reaction, unfortunately it can also be a deadly dangerous one.

Last January 23, father-of-three Ian McDonnell called in to the premises of used car dealership Ozone Cars in Clondalkin, where he worked as manager. He had left the engine of his own Volkswagen Passat running and saw it being stolen.

McDonnell jumped on the bonnet in an attempt to stop the robbery and was found on the road later that evening with serious injuries. He died in Tallaght University Hospital five days later. Two men were arrested, but released without charge.

“The greatest evil I could ever imagine,” was how Ian’s wife, Monica, described this crime at his funeral. “[It] has altered our lives eternally.”

Finally, what precautions can I take to avoid becoming part of the next car theft statistics?

Gardaí offer several technology-based tips, such as installing a GPS tracking system or keeping your keys in a signal-blocking pouch.

Going back to basics, however, perhaps the best deterrent is a steering wheel lock – warning any thief that your motor will be too much hassle and so they should just move on.

Car theft in Ireland is clearly a growth industry. If insurance premiums grow too, it will mean the crooks are taking us all for a ride.