How 40 Percent of Australia’s Stolen Cars End Up Overseas
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How 40 Percent of Australia’s Stolen Cars End Up Overseas

Australia's contribution to the global black market is cheap, dirty, and surprisingly open to anyone. I discovered this by trying to sell a "stolen" car.
November 17, 2016, 12:00am

Tonight on SBS VICELAND, Michael K. Williams investigates how cars stolen in America end up in Nigeria. Watch our exploration of illicit economies in BLACK MARKET: 8:30 PM Thursdays.

The global market for stolen cars runs from hi-end luxury rebirths, through to second-hand parts off stolen vehicles. Australia contributes very little at the luxury end (mostly because we don't make cars with much value overseas) but we contribute a lot of parts.

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Every year 10,000 cars are stolen around Australia. Of those, 40 percent are never recovered, meaning they're stripped for parts and crushed for scrap metal, then shipped overseas for recycling. And while the practice is obviously illegal, it's surprisingly easy for petty thieves to convert a stolen car into cash, via their parts.

I know it's easy because I tried it. This is my very legitimately owned, non-stolen car that I decided to try and pass off as stolen. How do you sell something like that?

For me the process starts at one of Victoria's 450 vehicle-recycling companies. You'll know these places for their ads: cash for cars. Call them, they'll come get your car, pay you cash. Your car then gets towed to a wreckers yard in some fringe industrial estate where they pull it apart.

Most of these places operate above board, but a lot don't. They're proprietors who have simply rented a property and fenced it off. They don't have much in the way of signage, nor do they follow environmental regulations on disposing of oil, brake fluid, or air conditioner coolants. They pile up cars without much consideration for OH&S, which is also a deliberate way to deter police from auditing vehicle identification numbers on stolen engine blocks. The places are simply rented lots with a fence, and they're front-of-house for car theft in Australia.

I'm driving around Campbellfield in the city's north where there are a lot of these businesses. I pull up in my 1992 Subaru Liberty and ask what the guy can offer. He tells me $200 cash. I tell him I don't have any paperwork. He shrugs in a way that suggests "that's fine, but I won't say it's fine with actual words." I tell him I'll think about it and drive away.

If you're the kind of person who needs 500 dollars' worth of heroin a day, two stolen cars do the job. You steal a car, remove the plates, and drive it to an unscrupulous wrecker. They then strip out the engine and gearbox, then load them into shipping containers (amongst a pile of other legitimately sourced parts). When the containers arrive at the dock, they check that the contents match the consignment description—which is second-hand parts. There's no way to check whether some of the parts are stolen, so the containers get green lit for export to Asia (usually via Malaysia) or Africa (via South Africa).

"We're never going to stop this at the ports," says Ray Carroll, who is the director of the National Motor Vehicle Reduction Council. "By the time the parts are in a shipping container it's too late.

Ray believes the only antidote to car theft is in the regulation of car recycling. He thinks that fines are too low for wreckers found to be violating the law (sometimes only a few hundred dollars), while the amount of red tape involved in working with the law is too high for people who want to do the right thing.

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"At the moment it's just too easy to operate under the radar," says Ray. "A lot of these businesses might take only 10 stolen cars every year, but that's 4,500 across the state. We need to create a system where for wreckers it's not worth taking those 10 cars."

I drive out to another wreckers but this guy is much more suspicious. As soon as I tell him it's not mine he tells me he's not interested. He then tells me to go down the road.

At the end of the road is the kind of place you assume disposes of bodies as well as deals in car crushing. The owner there doesn't even come out of his office to look at the car. He just tells me it's a straight $100 for any pre-2000 model. "There's only money in four wheel drives," he says. Interestingly Ray had also mentioned there's a slightly larger market for 4WDs because the parts end up in places without maintained roads.

I ask the guy how much he'd pay for a 4WD, without documentation. "Maybe $300," he says. "But that's only for Toyota."

It seems that while car theft in films and TV looks lucrative and high-stakes, in suburban Australia it's only cheap. No one is making big money, and particularly not the ones stealing the cars.