In the Netherlands, STOLEN SUVs are being shipped to Ghana, indicating that it's not just a single criminal organization but rather a much larger network.
Modern stolen cars are globally traceable through tracking systems, and a significant number of SUVs stolen in the Netherlands are transported to West Africa, particularly Ghana. Additionally, other stolen cars find their way to Germany and Poland, where they are quickly dismantled.
The stolen car investigation unit in Digitpol is hunting down the stolen cars together with the Vehicle Crime Insurance Bureau (VbV), the digital evidence on Digitpol's platform, which records the movements of cars stolen in the Netherlands, paint a clear and alarming picture. Ghana seems to be the preferred destination for highly organized criminal organizations to ship their stolen vehicles. Once in Ghana, these cars are given a new lease on life, either within the capital, Accra, or through it.
Despite Ghana having a National Road Transport Agency, there is a lack of interest in addressing car theft, with local law enforcement seemingly turning a blind eye. Whether this is due to corruption or sheer disinterest remains unclear. Criminal groups take advantage of the Ghanaian government's inaction, resulting in the streets of Ghana being inundated with stolen Western cars.
Even efforts by car insurers, represented by the Vehicle Crime Insurance Bureau (VbV), prove ineffective in preventing the mass exodus of vehicles. Canadian and U.S. authorities express concern as large fleets of vehicles disappear to Ghana, contributing to the country becoming a major destination for stolen goods.
Tracking efforts by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are hindered by the prevalence of car dealers selling stolen vehicles around the capital Accra and the commercial city of Kumasi. Stolen vehicles, particularly all-terrain vehicles and SUVs, are popular in Ghana due to their good maintenance and minimal damage, often sourced from the well-maintained Dutch road network.
The investigation into stolen cars involves collaboration between the VbV and their operational partner, Digitpol, a specialist in criminal investigation. Digitpol's tracking system can pinpoint stolen modern cars in the Netherlands down to the square meter.
Cars are equipped with electronics or beacons reporting their location, and Digitpol's digital maps suggest that once in Ghana, these cars often end up in private hands. The movement patterns indicate that most cars are stationary at a fixed location at night and in the morning drive to a place where they stay for a significant part of the day, before returning to their resting place, possibly via locations like shopping centers.
An interesting observation is made regarding online locations in European countries where stolen cars often end up, particularly near large churches in Ghana. While it is not yet established whether these churches are being exploited as a cover or vehicle for organized car theft, it remains a noteworthy fact.
Besides Ghana, experts from the VbV and Digitpol note unusual activities in Togo and Burkina Faso, indicating a tight organization. Digital maps reveal a consistent route from the port in Togo to the border with Burkina Faso, with stolen cars following the same path in a fraction of the time it takes regular individuals to cross the border.
While stolen cars in Ghana are mainly acquired by private individuals, those in Burkina Faso seem to serve a different purpose, resembling a military operation. The political unrest in Burkina Faso further complicates tracking efforts, as the cars often disappear from the radar.
While many stolen off-road vehicles are shipped to West Africa for resale, most stolen cars remaining in Europe take a different route. A car stolen in the Netherlands at night often heads straight to the border, ending up in Germany or Poland, where it is quickly stripped for parts. The narrow window of less than nine hours between theft and stripping poses a challenge for authorities.
Turning the tide is challenging, as owners often take hours or even days to realize their car is missing. By the time it is reported, the car has crossed the border, sometimes even completely disassembled, and vanished from the radar.
An anonymous expert from Digitpol underscores the fantastic cooperation of the European police when actively approached with information about a stolen car, particularly in most of Europe, action is taken in real-time.
The issue of car security generates significant attention, with car manufacturers facing accusations of inadequate security measures. Despite manufacturers' constant innovation, criminals exploit these advancements, utilizing a multitude of legally available online tools to program keys and bypass security. Digitpol states car manufacturers are not to blame, the matter is solely down to popularity per brand per country, for example in Italy the Fiat 500 is the most stolen car, in the Netherlands it’s the Toyota. All car manufacturers implement changes to security and they fully cooperate.
Numerous legal websites posing as locksmiths offer a wide array of equipment and tools, both software and hardware, enabling criminals to steal vehicles. Mechanical tools that were once used for breaking into cars have given way to digital means, taking advantage of the computer-controlled electronics in modern cars.
Criminals often employ a device to break into the car's CAN bus (controller area network), sending signals mimicking a key, prompting the car to open and start. The relay attack is another prevalent method, where thieves capture key signals, amplify them, and send them to a colleague at the car, enabling it to open and start.
The targeted brands and models of cars change periodically, driven by weaknesses in electronic security and the availability of tools. The Toyota RAV4 and Toyota C-HR have been popular targets for years, with their popularity extending to West Africa due to the brand's strong presence in the region. Despite efforts by Toyota to enhance security, criminals currently have the upper hand in the ongoing cat-and-mouse game. Digitpol states that Toyota implements regularly security upgrades and they fully cooperate with Police.
This year, VbV registered nearly six thousand stolen passenger cars in the Netherlands, highlighting the persistent challenge of car theft and its multifaceted impact on public safety and crime.
Explosive and ram raids
This year, VbV registered almost six thousand stolen passenger cars in the Netherlands, two-thirds of which are still missing. Cars are not only stolen for use by the buyer or for reuse of the parts ( this is called crime as a purpose in jargon), but also for use in other crimes, such as drug trafficking, bombings and ram raids or as a getaway car ( crime as a service). ).
The most infamous recent example is the stolen vehicles with which Derk Wiersum, the lawyer of key witness Nabil B., was observed for a long time before he was shot dead near his home in 2019. One of those inconspicuous cars, a Renault Mégane, had driven through his street dozens of times before the murder. The police were already investigating the alleged gang that had stolen the cars for crimes, but unfortunately the investigation team did not take the cars into account at the time. That is why the Mégane was not intensively followed.
A CBC News investigation tracks stolen vehicles to dealerships in Ghana and breaks down why thefts are on the rise and what can be done — by officials and drivers — to keep Canadian cars from ending up overseas. A video shows many stolen cars in Ghana to be retunred to the USA and Canada.
This article is written by By Wouter Laumans and Paul Vugts