LOS ANGELES—Hot cars sit near the pier. Hot-looking and hot—as in stolen—the vehicles will be returned to their owners. The 20 luxury cars on display are only a small percentage of stolen goods being exported to Asia for sale.
According to a press release from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Outbound Enforcement Team (OET), these particular vehicles were bound for Hong Kong and Vietnam. The OET regularly audits warehouse manifests to compare serial numbers and descriptions of container contents. Inspectors check online to determine if a vehicle that is outbound has outstanding leases or loans, or is stolen.
Recent audits found 20 stolen outbound vehicles.
The vehicles were listed as used fitness equipment. Among them were a Lamborghini, a Ferrari 458 Italia, and other models such as the BMW, Infiniti, Lexus, Mercedes, and Audi brands. The cars had a combined estimated value of $1.5 million, according to the CBP.
In fiscal year 2011, the CBP at Los Angeles/Long Beach Seaport seized 61 vehicles and 49 engines set for overseas delivery. Of that total, 24 were stolen, 73 were undeclared, 7 were undervalued, and 6 had fraudulent documents, the CBP said in a statement.
Losers in the Game
CBP officers discovered that smugglers using false identities had leased or purchased the new vehicles, defrauding several local California dealerships, financial institutions, and insurance companies. If the vehicle is leased or has a loan, it cannot be released for export to another country, according to Carlos Martel, director of field operations in Los Angeles for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, reported the Monterey Herald.
Sgt. Michael Stefanoff of the California Highway Patrol said, “The total number of vehicles recovered for illegal export in the past year for California was about 230 vehicles from the [Mexican] border to here.” CHP has seven investigators assigned to directly related vehicle problems.
In this type of investigation, “We investigate three areas when we locate these people … vehicles, money and money laundering, and drugs. They go hand-in-hand with these kinds of people,” said Stefanoff.
When discussing the overall problem, he said, “We have seen stolen vehicles come in from other states to avoid detection. Last year, there was one driven from Florida to California.”
Stefanoff said a bigger problem is that outbound containers do not require placement into an approved warehouse and possible inspection/audit before being released for export. The massive number of containers is beyond the seaports’ ability to inspect them.
The combined LA/Long Beach Seaport is the eighth-largest port complex in the world. The number of containers coming and going through the seaport exceeded 38,000 per day in 2011.
The California Highway Patrol and U.S. Customs and Border Protection cooperate in investigations where vehicles are concerned. Both are part of the Department of Homeland Security.
International Agency Cooperation
Stefanoff said his counterparts in Asia are working with police and import officers on cases of illegal imports of autos and other goods from the United States. Since outbound containers are not usually inspected on the U.S. side, Asian police are doing their part to recover stolen vehicles from inbound containers into their seaports, to the extent they can.