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Piracy: vehicle theft takes a deadly turn.

Even if drivers do everything possible to protect themselves, there is no guarantee they can avoid becoming victims.

On Sept. 8, 1992, Pamela Basu, a 34-year-old research chemist from Savage, Md., was driving her daughter to pre-school when she was accosted at a stop sign by two men who pushed her out of the auto. The terror that followed, which included Basu being dragged by the car for almost two miles while trying to save her child, and having her daughter thrown out of the vehicle while still strapped to her car seat, left an indelible mark on the public. Pamela Basu died at the scene, but her child miraculously survived. From that time, the word car jacking has been etched firmly in the mind of anyone who drives.

Despite several highly publicized incidents like the Pamela Basu case, carjacking represents less than two percent of all vehicle thefts in the US. Further, of the total carjackings nationally, less than three percent end in violence. Nevertheless, the sheer horror of Pamela Basu's death brought this crime to the forefront of the public's conscience and cleared the way for the passage of the Federal carjacking law. The case also induced the passage of local statutes throughout the country, enhancing the criminal penalties for carjacking. Just as important, it served as the catalyst for police departments in every part of the country to rededicate their resources to carjackings in order to bring this violent crime to a standstill.

Vehicle theft always has been a serious and costly problem in the US., with a record-high 1,661,738 cases in 1991. That translates to one car stolen every 19 seconds, or 4,550 autos daily. In 1991, one out of every 117 registered vehicles was stolen. According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, vehicle theft has risen consistently, and, between 1984 and 1991, it increased by 61%. Until recently, though, vehicle theft was just a "property crime," and was not associated with violence. Now, however, the motives for vehicle theft have changed.

From the 1940s to the early 1960s, the vast majority of stolen vehicles were traced to joyriders seeking transportation for pleasure or felons using them for a getaway from a crime scene. The only danger to the American public occurred from accidents that resulted from the thieves' lack of driving skills or efforts to elude capture.

Beginning in the late 1960s, law enforcement agencies observed a drastic reduction in the recovery rate - from nine of 10 in 1967 to six of 10 today. These statistics revealed a shift in the motive for vehicle theft, from a source of transportation to a means of easy profit. Law enforcement investigations began to identify the existence of professional and organized groups involved in commercial theft.

Some of the more frequent criminal operations include "chop shops," where stolen vehicles are disassembled for the purpose of selling their component parts (it is estimated that the component parts are valued at three times the original price for the vehicle); "salvage switching," in which the identification number (VIN) is removed from a salvaged vehicle and, with its accompanying title, placed on a similar stolen vehicle, thereby hiding its stolen status; insurance fraud, whereby individuals "give up" their vehicle to a middleman who, in turn, delivers it to other commercial thieves; and exportation, where thieves either drive the stolen vehicle to another country or ship it overseas under concealment in containers.

Vehicle theft is highly profitable, uncomplicated, and a low risk. It takes only minutes to break into a vehicle, and most of the parts are unmarked. The chance of getting caught remains low because vehicle theft maintains a low priority within police departments, who must focus their limited resources on more important matters such as drug trafficking and violent crimes. As a natural consequence, in 1991, law enforcement agencies nationwide recorded a mere 14% clearance rate. Commercial vehicle theft is a booming business. In 1991, losses traceable to this crime approached 8,300,-000,000. In spite of all this, carjacking to derive a profit from the resale of the vehicle or its parts is considered one of the less significant motives, and this is supported by the fact that more than 90% of carjacked vehicles are recovered, compared to approximately 62% of those stolen while unoccupied.

Motivation

When the sole motive of car theft was to obtain the vehicle for its value, there typically was little danger posed to the average American. In contrast, the primary motives of today's carjackers appear to be transportation for a getaway after robbing the drivers, a source of transportation to commit another crime, and joyriding. So, in contrast to the past, the new carjacking problem is more akin to the violent street crimes associated with gangs and the drug subculture, and motorists are more at risk of physical harm and/or death.

It is difficult to assess the extent of carjacking in that most law enforcement agencies categorize it as an armed robbery or vehicle theft. An FBI survey, conducted in the fall of 1992, estimated that there were approximately 19,000 carjackings in 1991; final figures for 1992 are expected to show an increase to around 25,000. Figures before 1991 have not been retrieved, so it is difficult to extrapolate trends for 1993.

While the underlying reasons for the upsurge in carjackings are unclear, the increasing number of handguns in circulation today is considered an important factor. In addition, it widely is believed by the FBI and other law enforcement officials that vehicle thieves find it easier to use force, rather than deal with anti-theft devices installed in newer model cars. Also, when a vehicle is carjacked, the thief usually can obtain its keys and registration papers. Just as importantly, he gets a damage-free vehicle that will not draw the attention of police, as does one with a popped ignition switch.

The increased violence associated with car theft is consistent with the over-all upsurge in violence in the U.S. today. Between 1987 and 1991, the Uniform Crime Reports reflected a 29% growth in reported violence. To combat this, the FBI embarked upon an intensified assault on violent crime in January, 1992. FBI Director William S. Sessions announced the Safe Streets initiative to combat the problem, with special emphasis on street gangs. As part of this initiative, 385 Special Agents were reprogrammed from the Foreign Counterintel-ligence Program to the Violent Crimes and Major Offenders Program.

As part of Safe Streets, the FBI is participating in 71 task forces consisting of Federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies, operating in 45 field offices nationwide. The success of the Safe Streets effort is exemplified by an 84% increase in arrests of violent criminals since its inception.

Five days after the death of Mrs. Basu, FBI Director Sessions mandated that carjacking become a priority of the Safe Streets initiative. On Sept. 15, 1992, he declared: "Carjacking is a violent crime that deserves the full attention of the FBI." Before the passage of the Anti-Vehicle Theft Act of 1992, carjacking by itself was not a Federal violation. Nonetheless, in those instances where the problem was epidemic and evidence existed to indicate that the carjackings were part of a continuing criminal enterprise involving organized or significant criminal targets, the FBI explored opportunities to apply other Federal statutes to address the issue.

For instance, there was the "Operation Fleetwheels" case investigated in 1990 by an FBI/New York City Police Department task force. The. target was an organized group of motor vehicle thieves who had committed seven armed robberies involving luxury automobiles located in midtown Manhattan public parking garages and stolen at least 45 other luxury vehicles. The investigation culminated on July 22, 1991, when a Federal Grand Jury returned a 436-count indictment charging 11 defendants with various Federal crimes, including two counts of violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) statute. Ten of the defendants pleaded guilty to the violations; the final one was found guilty after a jury trial; and approximately $1,300,000 in stolen vehicles were recovered.

With the passage of the Federal carjacking statute, the FBI was given exclusive Federal criminal jurisdiction to investigate these vehicular crimes. In that the Bureau already had prioritized this situation, many FBI field offices had mechanisms in place to respond to carjacking incidents. Each Special Agency in Charge of the 56 field offices throughout the country had developed an investigative and prosecutive strategy with their respective United States Attorneys.

The FBI initiated the first prosecutions under the new legislation with the Dec. 1, 1992, indictment of two individuals responsible for a Nov. 27, 1992, carjacking in Philadelphia. In that case, a couple was ordered from their car and forced into a dumpster at gunpoint. Similar success is being seen throughout the country as more is being learned about this crime.

What we have discovered is that most carjackers are armed and inclined to steal expensive cars. The main reason for targeting these vehicles is that, if armed robbery is the motive, there is a greater likelihood that the driver of a Mercedes Benz or other luxury car will be carrying a lot of money or will be in possession of valuables, such as jewelry. That said, motorists should not feel immune to carjacking because their cars are old or less desirable. For instance, among those vehicles taken by force in Washington, D.C., during 1992 were a 1977 Dodge Dart and 1979 Buick station wagon. Often, carjacking is a crime of opportunity, and any vehicle is acceptable for joyriding or as a getaway car.

The FBI does not have sufficient data at this time to profile a carjacker, but will be looking for ways to do so in the future. Most carjackings take place in cities, with the most prevalent localities being intersections, gas stations, parking lots, and even residential driveways.

Reducing your chance of

becoming a victim

Carjacking has alarmed motorists, who increasingly are turning to law enforcement agencies for advice to reduce their risks. Unfortunately for the general public, in crimes of opportunity, there are only so many things you can do; even if you do everything right, there is no guarantee you will avoid being a victim. Yet, by adhering to basic principles of good sense, motorists significantly can reduce their chances of becoming victims.

* Be aware of your surroundings, especially in isolated areas. Intuition and instincts usually are accurate, so, if someone is near your unoccupied car and you are alarmed, simply keep walking until he leaves or telephone a friend to pick you up.

* Recognizing that the most common scenario in carjackings is to have someone come up to a stopped car and open the door or shove a gun through an open window, keep your windows up and the doors locked.

* While driving, stay in the middle lane, if possible, to avoid getting blocked into the curb. Leave sufficient space between other vehicles while stopped at red lights for an escape route. If someone approaches your car, try to drive away.

* Park your vehicle in well-lit areas and leave yourself an "out" for a quick getaway if necessary.

* If confronted by a carjacker who is armed or otherwise threatens physical harm, offer no resistance and immediately surrender your car.

A frequently asked question is whether motorists should carry weapons to protect themselves. In some states, this is illegal; even where legal, this practice is not endorsed by the FBI. Guns in the hands of untrained citizens present a danger to themselves as well as innocent bystanders, especially if the weapon were to get into the hands of the carjacker.

Whether carjacking will remain as another form of violence in America is yet to be determined. In the meanwhile, motorists today must realize that their vehicle does not guarantee them immunity from danger. With this in mind, the FBI is committed to attacking the violent crime problem aggressively on our streets and highways.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Society for the Advancement of Education
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:includes related article on insurance issues
Author:Kahoe, E. Michael; Apple, Howard B.; Barrett, Wayne M.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Words:1996
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