Forget bootleg cigarettes and alcohol, or even stolen Shoguns and Jaguars. Britain's criminals have hit on a new means of making a low-risk, low-visibility fortune – smuggling bulldozers.
Construction sites across the country are becoming the target for gangs stealing heavy equipment to export to destinations from Ireland to Israel in an improbable trade worth £150m a year.
A procession of up to 10,000 excavators, diggers and loaders is being wheeled out of contractors' yards and sneaked past police and customs every year with embarrassing ease, according to experts.
In response, the Home Office has launched a task force to improve security and arrest rates amid concern that the black market in bright yellow JCBs, Caterpillars and Hitachis is running out of control.
The highly organised gangs are being supplied with "shopping lists" of equipment, worth up to £150,000 per item, by foreign clients willing to turn a blind eye to "hot" plant available at cheap prices
The smugglers – often portfolio criminals involved in other markets from drugs to people trafficking – break into sites after scouting ahead to find the requested goods.
Then, rather than finding it difficult to sneak a 45-ton mobile crane through the green channel of a British port, it is simply placed on a low loader and driven on to a ship with a minimum of checks.
The National Plant and Equipment Register, which keeps a database of some 45,000 items stolen since 1996, said the lumbering contraband was largely going unnoticed by police and customs. Tim Purbrick, a spokesman, said: "It is very frustrating – we are talking about a largely unseen crime because the ordinary policeman or customs official is not looking out for this sort of stuff.
"If a police officer is given a choice between pulling over a dodgy-looking car and a lorry carrying a couple of JCBs, it will be the car every time. They don't know how to trace a stolen bulldozer. The smugglers then drive the equipment on to a ship or pack it into a container and it is sold on. When you are talking about vehicles costing £80,000 or more each, the profit to risk return is enormous."
The register, a resource pooled between insurance companies and the authorities, estimates that nearly a third of vehicle crime in Britain now involves construction equipment. About 83 per cent of what is stolen stays in this country, with 17 per cent exported to Ireland and other countries. The export market makes up half the value of the estimated £300m annual trade.
Free movement rules in the European Union mean consignments bound from Britain and nominally heading for another EU country can pass through ports unhindered. Most of the equipment is then sent to destinations in Africa, the Middle East, eastern Europe and Russia via staging posts in Malta and Cyprus, according to the register.Reuse content