Boom in car thefts alarms the Germans

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The Independent Online
SHOULD you be considering a motoring holiday in Germany, you may wish to make provisions beforehand for an alternative means of return. Cars are being stolen here as never before. And the police, who glumly state things will only get worse, look on with growing helplessness. Last year 87,000 cars were stolen in Germany, an increase of 45 per cent on 1990. This year the authorities expect a new record to be set, over 100,000 vehicles.

'An explosion of this sort has never been seen before,' says an official at the Federal Criminal Office. 'Nor the fact that the theft is increasingly the work of internationally organised criminal gangs.' Gone are the days when most cars were stolen for a joyride, only to be found a week later in a somewhat used state. Half of the vehicles now reported missing are gone forever, shipped out by the highly skilled networks, which operate on a quasi-industrial scale. The rise in cars 'permanently lost', as the police call it, was 58 per cent between 1990 and 1991, a rate which 'will continue to increase', according to the authorities.

This sudden boom in demand for help-yourself used cars can be traced directly back to the collapse of the Iron Curtain. Germany's geographical position, as well as its wealth of luxurious vehicles, makes it the prime target for the gangs.

According to the German police the members of these gangs 'are mostly Polish nationals or German citizens of Polish extraction'. Meanwhile, Russian, Bulgarian and Romanian groups are trying to muscle in on the act. The police merely say that there is 'fierce conflict over market shares'.

The chief markets for the stolen vehicles are Poland itself, as well as the Baltic republics, and the areas around Moscow and Leningrad. The other central European countries mainly act as transit routes. The situation is now regarded as so bad in eastern Europe that car hire companies in Germany refuse to allow their vehicles into the 'bad lands'. 'Our cars were disappearing so fast it became ridiculous,' says one hire company executive. Even some insurance companies now quibble when their clients say they wish to drive into eastern Europe. Insurance rates generally have risen greatly.

No type of car is spared - everything from the Mercedes 'S' class to small family run-arounds will find enthusiastic buyers in the thrusting new democracies. There is also, not surprisingly given the state of the roads, strong demand for 'rugged vehicles'. And, as if police did not face enough tribulations, there is another market for which Germany appears a key target. In a terse phrase, the Federal Criminal Agency notes the existence of 'enormous demand for quality vehicles in Kuwait'.

The only effective way of combating the gangs would be to have customs officials on the eastern borders checking engine and chassis numbers of each car, say police. But a spokesman said: 'Drivers are already mad at existing delays, so you can imagine such a suggestion is a non-starter.'