A documentary by Nat Geo has thrown more light on how stolen vehicles are shipped from the US to Ghana and how the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) is altered to help prevent security operatives from detecting the vehicles are stolen.
The investigation by Mariana van Zeller for the National Geographic Channel exposes the syndicate of shipping some of the stolen vehicles to Ghana.
Sometimes, the VIN of a salvage vehicle bought at an auction is swapped with that of a clean vehicle stolen from the streets and this does not raise any red flags when leaving the system in the US.
The documentary highlights the activities of car thieves in the US, and how they collaborate with people in Ghana to get the stolen vehicles into the country.
It also talks about how people affiliated with the syndicate have amassed wealth as a result of engaging in the business.
The investigative journalist speaks to sources and people involved in the US and follows it up with a trip to Accra, Ghana to speak to some of the people associated with the business and able to show a sample of a stolen vehicle – Mercedez Benz C250 – in the streets of Accra that is in a garage and being offered for sale.
The documentary establishes that particular Mercedez Benz had a VIN swapped with a salvaged Mercedez.
Some of the gang members who spoke to van Zeller explained to her how they undertake their activities and the structure of the international crime syndicate where cars stolen on the streets of America end up outside of the US and in places such as Ghana.
Van Zeller travelled to Ghana to meet some of the local players including a hacker/black market trader and another person who handles the business aspect of the enterprise.
The two gave the journalist insights into the local trading of stolen cars and how they are able to get the cars into the Ghanaian system without raising any red flag.
With import duties costing as much as 20 percent of the value of a car in Ghana, the hacker told van Zeller that he is able to hack into the system of the Customs Division of the Ghana Revenue Authority to help the syndicate get away with paying the required import duties.
“It is my duty to attack the Tema Harbour… We make it seem as if you’ve paid everything,” the hacker stated.
Being the people at the end of the trail, the Ghanaian syndicate are deemed as being at the summit of the international car smuggling syndicate.
Calling himself Ivan, a man who leads the importation and selling of stolen cars in Ghana opened up more about the operations of the gang to the journalist.
“It is possible that most of these cars are stolen. Most of the boys come here to hang out. There are top guys that are in the business now; the stolen cars business. This is how some family generations have made money,” Ivan told the journalist while they drove through some areas in Accra where nightlife is buzzing.
In all, the investigation uncovered the Ghanaian players as those sitting on top of the international car theft ring. They make the most money from a criminal enterprise that sees cars belonging to people in America, stolen and shipped outside.
Car thieves in US
In the US, the operation runs in a chain at different levels from the car thieves, separate from those who clean up the stolen vehicles and eventually those responsible for selling them and then shipping them outside.
The car thieves hack into cars using for example, a universal key fob created by them with their mechanic collaborators, disable the GPS and drive away with their booty.
They clean the vehicle up by changing the VIN with their collaborators and once the vehicle is in a container and eventually leave the shores of the US, their job is done.
Insurance companies end up paying for the stolen vehicles for the real owners.
Watch the documentary by Marian van Zeller below:
The Economic and Organised Crime Office (EOCO) in Ghana in February 2023 secured a court order to seize vehicles suspected to have been stolen and smuggled into Ghana.
The freezing order from the court, according to EOCO, would enable it to seize 95 more vehicles in addition to 41 others seized earlier in collaboration with the US Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in December 2022.
According to EOCO, information available to it indicated that about 400 luxury vehicles suspected to have been stolen from the USA and Canada were in the country.
The said vehicles were alleged to have been obtained through fraud and other crimes and shipped into the country, with some being displayed for sale in a number of garages in Accra.
In December 2022 EOCO retrieved 37 luxury vehicles from some members of the vehicle and asset traders association and explained they were stolen vehicles.
According to EOCO, the vehicles were part of about 200 believed to have been stolen from Canada and the United States of America (USA).
They were retrieved through a joint operation with other security agencies following reports from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of the United States of America and Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), in Canada on the activity of some suspected criminals.