Police have busted a series of stolen-to-order car "chop shops" across the Wellington district.
The chop shops were run by gang affiliates who were ordering specific cars to be stolen, before stripping them down, erasing their identities, and reassembling their parts within the shells of legitimate cars - often within the space of 12 hours.
The resulting "Frankencars" were then advertised for sale on social media websites such as Facebook.
"It's big business," Detective Senior Sergeant Donna Howard said.
"This is a growing business and a strong business.
"It's like any economics - there's a market out there and these cars are stolen to fill that market. It may well be someone coming to them and saying: I want this. That way it maximises their chance of sale and they're not stuck with cars they can't get rid of."
After admitting in March that having 1800 cars stolen on their turf the previous year was "unacceptable", the district police launched a specialist car squad to combat the offending.
On average, five cars were being stolen in Wellington every day, with a further 10 broken into.
In the 15 weeks since its launch, the car squad has executed 22 search warrants across Wellington, Hutt Valley, Kapiti, Porirua and Horowhenua, arresting 33 car thieves and "bush mechanics", and recovering 32 stolen cars and hundreds of car parts.
Sergeant Wil Black, in charge of the car squad, said the gangs who ran the operations were talented at what they did, turning over stolen cars in less than a day.
"You've heard of bush lawyers - it's like having bush mechanics.
"It's guys that have the nous to pull cars apart. They're mechanically minded ... This is their job.
"This is what they do and they're very, very good at it.
"The whole process is pretty quick. They'll get them in and out in 12 hours."
The offenders would source legitimate "donor" cars that might have been crashed or otherwise bought on the cheap, he said.
They would then order thieves to steal a matching, working car and interchange the parts until the new car had a different identity. "What's changed is the etchings in the rear windshields, seatbelt tags, VIN numbers.
"They'll just weld another chassis on to the body of it, put on new [licence] plates. Some of them are so good, you wouldn't even know."
Most of the stolen cars were high-performance or four-wheel-drive vehicles, and much of the car squad's intelligence came from Facebook, Mr Black said, with chop shop operators publishing details of their cars and links to sales websites.
"A lot of our work has come out of Facebook. There are sites you go into and it's a market place [for stolen cars]."
All the operations were associated with gangs.
"Every single chop shop we have searched is linked with gangs. At that higher end, you're dealing with guys that are almost employed to do what they do and it's orchestrated by the gangs," Black said.
"The young guys, the boys racers, know that that's where they go if they need mags or parts. It's just, don't ask any questions."
Nine chop shops have been raided since March, the most recent an operation on Wednesday in the Owhiro Bay area in which police recovered half a dozen cars, cannabis and "some unknown pills and tablets that will need to be tested". Those offenders had links with the Mongrel Mob, Black Power, Nomads, Highway 61 and King Cobras.
The "knowledge gap" police acknowledged in March was being filled, Ms Howard said, as the car squad worked with theft victims to learn thieves' habits and busted more chop shops.
"We've managed to fill that information gap quite a bit.
"We know now that there are chop shops all around the Wellington district, and we're getting a feel of who's involved and how far-reaching it is.
"Now we can actually combat it," she said.
PROTECTING YOUR VEHICLE
- Etch your registration or Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) on windows, windscreens and headlights.
- Get your mechanic to add tamper-proof screws to your licence plate.
- Take note of your car's unique features, such as dents, or rubber peeling away from windows. Even if painted, these could still be recognisable.
- Install a car alarm and electronic engine immobiliser.
- Ask your mechanic to note down your VIN and engine numbers. These should be recorded on your vehicle registration, but the data can be missing in about 5 per cent of cases.
- Keep your vehicle keys with you. Keep spares at home or work.
- Don't hide a spare key on the car - thieves will find it.
- Always lock your car, including the boot and, if applicable, the sunroof.
- Park in busy, open, well-lit areas.
- If you keep your car in a garage, ensure the garage and car are locked.
POPULAR STOLEN MODELS
The most popular vehicles recovered so far during police raids on Wellington district chop shops:
- Subaru Legacy
- Subaru Forester
- Mitsubishi Lancer Evo
- Toyota Hilux
- Toyota Hiace
- Mazda 323 (which has very few identifying features, thus easy to "chop").
- The Dominion Post