Without doubt, car ringing has increased significantly in the past years and it has become clear that the perpetrators have no respect for international boundaries. Any belief that car ringers are opportunist thieves working from small backstreet garages is simply a myth, born of ignorance, or a failure to comprehend that we are dealing with highly organised international teams of criminals who have an intelligence network which, to a large degree, can outwit the police service.

They also use a sophisticated IT network, which enables them to improve communications internationally and also obtain technical information from the major vehicle manufacturers.

Broadly speaking, a ringing operation follows a similar format to that of a genuine car sales operation. A group of people take orders for a particular make or manufacture of vehicle. The group has a deadline to keep and stays in close contact with the person or persons making the orders to agree a delivery date.

The operation will have a banker, with whom all monies are deposited. This bank account will be split into smaller accounts under different names and organisations. These accounts will normally be held with offshore companies and used to finance further operations.

Once an order is made for a specific make and model of vehicle, the ringing operation steps up a gear. The order is given to a car thief at the bottom of the chain, who is generally known as a “grafter”. The grafter then steals a specific vehicle, drives it to a previously agreed location, normally a garage, where it is either stripped down for parts, or its identity is swapped with one from a previously written-off vehicle.

There is no doubt that the recipient of such a vehicle is aware that the vehicle purchased has a dubious history. Simply in the way the order is made in the first instance and secondly due to the value and the method of payment.

To a large extent these problems are enhanced by DVLA issuing not one, but a series of vehicle registration documents for the same vehicle in a short space of time. We have come across individuals who, on surrendering their vehicle documents to substantiate a claim, have released to our claims investigators up to five registrations for the same vehicle.

When questioned over these matters, the DVLA's response has at times been obstructive and, at best, shown an entirely naive attitude to the opportunities these actions offer the ringer.

One of the major areas of concern to the authorities is the way that insurance write-offs are dealt with. There is a strong opinion that any vehicle deemed as a write-off should be crushed immediately, rather than sold on by a salvage dealer.

There is no doubt that if vehicles were crushed in a controlled and supervised way, this would immediately reduce car ringing by limiting the source of ready-made identities to transfer to a previously stolen vehicle.

Vehicles are also dismantled and the spare parts sold for up to three times a vehicle's worth. A small team can dismantle a Mitsubishi Shogun within three minutes.

Going to pieces

Parts are stored, together with the vehicle's chassis until about one month later, when the chassis will be abandoned on spare land where it can be discovered by the police.

Once the chassis is identified as a previously stolen vehicle, it will be transferred to a salvage dealer. Shortly after, a nominated member of the ringing operation will visit the salvage dealer, purchasing the chassis for a nominal fee. The chassis will be taken to a garage nominated by the team, where it will be rebuilt with the original parts. As the vehicle has now been recorded as recovered, the vehicle identification is then removed from the police national computer and it, once again, becomes an original vehicle, making a tidy profit for those involved.

Insurers should keep a running log of individuals who purchase a chassis from them. When they notice the same individuals or similar addresses appearing on a number of occasions, this should raise an immediate investigation and the information should be supplied to the police.

Investigating car crime has its own problems. The police service in the UK, instead of increasing its vehicle examiners, is actually reducing its number of staff, and some whole teams have been disbanded. RGI identified this some years ago and now has its own national team of vehicle examiners that is trained by the Home Office and is able to offer evidence in court to substantiate a particular case.

This service is further enhanced by RGI's forensic scientists who examine documentation for forgeries and alterations, and also vehicles, to identify previously repaired damage.

It must be remembered that the significant development of computerised systems means forgers working alongside car ringing operations can supply quality reproductions of vehicle registration documents, including MOT certificates, which to the naked eye appear genuine. It is not until a full forensic examination of these documents is carried out, that the first steps of an investigation can begin to prove that a particular claim is fraudulent.

There is a widespread assumption that new vehicles cannot be stolen because of factory-fitted engine immobilisers and alarms. But this is not the case.

RGI liaise on a continual basis with experts in this particular field and it appears that vehicles at the top end of the market are the ones that are most at risk. Many do not have simple deadlocks, let alone adequate alarms or immobilisers.

Vehicles manufactured in the UK and exported for sale on the continent do not have the standard UK security specification. It is vehicles such as these that are being purchased by vehicle import companies and re-introduced into the UK, that make easy targets for car thieves.

It is only since 1999 that vehicles sold in the UK have had immobilisers fitted as standard. But again, this should not imply that these vehicles cannot be stolen in the conventional sense, as our investigations have proved.

It has been suggested that these vehicles can only be stolen by fraud and deception, but this is most definitely not the case, a fact substantiated by our forensic vehicle examiners.

A number of vehicles in the executive car range that have previously been stolen and recovered, have been examined and it has been discovered that not only had their alarm systems been overcome, but the immobiliser systems had also been bypassed.

Professional car thieves will use various means and devices to steal upmarket vehicles to order and, more recently, the police in the UK and Europe have come across specialised hand-made tools, generally referred to as “Polish keys”, to steal Mercedes cars. This is a further example of the skill that is now being used by professional car thieves who are active, not only in the UK, but across continental Europe.

Exported stolen vehicles

For some time, there has been a highly organised market for stolen vehicles that have been exported abroad. Vehicles stolen in the UK are either driven through the Channel tunnel or onto ships where, in a few hours, they are free from detection.

As international border controls have been abolished within the European single market, the detection and the gathering of intelligence on teams involved in the transportation of stolen vehicles around the continent has suffered, reducing the ability to achieve positive results in their recovery.

We now have British nationals living in various countries within Europe, purchasing previously stolen vehicles. Having recently visited a number of European countries, we have identified right-hand drive vehicles on British numberplates. When making enquiries with DVLA, it has been found that the index numbers displayed on these vehicles are false.

Taking into consideration that the vehicles identified included Rolls Royces, Mercedes, BMWs, Porsches, Ferraris, it soon became apparent that there is a lucrative market on the continent and that the insurance sector has ultimately been the loser in this respect.

What is clear from our analysis, is that there needs to be an agreement within the insurance sector as to how vehicles, deemed insurance write-offs, should be dealt with in the first instance. Serious consideration should be given to controlled and supervised crushing, so write-offs are not returned to the market.

RGI is already committed to training sessions within the insurance sector, instructing claims handlers how to identify potential ringers and, thereafter, of ensuring that a particular type of investigation is pursued so substantial savings are achieved.

It is also apparent that there is now a requirement for a proactive forensic examination of suspect vehicles as soon as a claim is received, so expert advice and reports are received to establish if a settlement can be considered.

There can be no doubt that without a united and proactive front in this area, the UK insurance industry will be seen as an easy touch for some considerable time to come and at a significant cost.

  • Ray Glenn is the managing director of RG Investigations (UK).

    See RGI's follow-up feature on staged traffic accidents in February's edition of Claims.

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