CRIMINAL gangs are increasingly targeting four-wheel-drive vehicles, many of which are being stolen to order and sold abroad.
Some insurance companies have become so concerned at the growing number of thefts that they are refusing to provide cover unless security devices are fitted. They have reported that thieves are turning from 'hot hatch' fast cars to the prestige 4x4 'off-road' models, which can cost more than pounds 30,000.
Police stolen vehicle squads know several gangs travelling around the country to steal the vehicles.
Among the most attractive targets are the Mitsubishi Shogun, the Land- Rover Discovery, the Isuzu Trooper, the Suzuki Vitara, Range Rovers, the Vauxhall Frontera, and the Toyota Landcruiser range.
Police in the North-east have reported that they are a favourite among drug dealers and that the cheaper models are starting to be used by the young 'surf board' set. As well as being sold throughout Britain, stolen vehicles are being shipped abroad.
Sales have been traced to the Middle East, India, the Far East and Japan. Countries such as South Africa, Malaysia and Malta are also prime destinations because they drive on the left. Thieves have been known to dismantle the vehicles before smuggling them out of Britain in crates.
Chief Inspector Stephen Lovelock, of the Metropolitan Police's stolen vehicle squad, said: 'These vehicles are in great world-wide demand - people overseas know they are good quality and durable.' He added that the main target areas in the South- east of England were Essex and parts of north-east and west London.
Thieves from Glasgow have been operating in the richer suburbs of Edinburgh, and in the North-east of England gangs, particularly from Newcastle, have been travelling to houses in the country to steal 4x4s to order. .
Detective Constable Mick Nealen, of the Northumbria Police's stolen vehicle squad, said: 'People in the country don't take as many security precautions and the thieves know this.'
Sales of the vehicles rose by almost 50 per cent last year to more than 58,000. In the past five years car crime in the UK has also risen by 50 per cent. Last year nearly 600,000 cars were stolen - more than 3 per cent of all vehicles owned. The exact number of 4x4s stolen is unknown because police forces do not keep records of individual models.
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