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Carjackers, shady motor dealers run car theft syndicate in Embu

By Joseph Muchiri | Apr 3rd 2014 | 5 min read
A welded piece of metal at the section where the Nissan X-trail’s original engine number should be.  [Photo: Joseph Muchiri/Standard]

By Joseph Muchiri

Embu, Kenya: Underworld kingpins have opened operational bases for car theft syndicates in Embu town, where they tamper with stolen vehicles before selling them to an unsuspecting public.

Investigations by The Standard show that some carjackers, shady motor dealers and mechanics have formed an unholy union specialising in selling cars stolen from all parts of country after they are given fake registration documents.

Our probing has unmasked an elaborate web of deception involving the purchase of written-off cars by the gangs in a bid to legitimise the stolen vehicles.

Consequently, police in Embu have launched investigations into the syndicate after several cars, suspected to be stolen from other parts of the country, have found their way to Embu where they have been sold to unsuspecting residents.

In January, this year, Anne Wambui, a widow, paid the last installment for a Sh710,000 Toyota Fielder to an Embu dealer and proudly drove off.

Her dreams were shattered when she learnt from her mechanic that the car’s chassis and engine numbers were different from those in the logbook, prompting her to report the matter to the police.

Case pending

Consequently, the dealer was charged with fraud as well as handling stolen goods since the vehicle in question had been stolen. The case is still pending before an Embu court.

Embu County criminal investigations officer Zachary Kariuki said police recently impounded five cars suspected to have been stolen from other parts of the country.

One of the cars, a Nissan X-trail registration number KBP 244F, was impounded last Friday evening while being driven along the Kerugoya-Embu road.

Kariuki said he could not reveal details about the owner because that could jeopardise their investigations.

He said the chassis, engine and registration numbers of the impounded vehicles do not match logbook details.

“One of the vehicles has a Ugandan registration number on the windscreen and is also registered using a Kenyan number plate. The other is registered using different numbers on the plate and windscreen,” he said.

He said two people who were caught with stolen cars have been charged before the Embu court and their cases are ongoing and could help unravel the syndicate’s operations.

Kariuki said the criminals mostly targeted first-time car owners who are mesmerised by the idea of owning a vehicle to the point of failing to countercheck with the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA).

A police officer who has been involved in the recovery of stolen vehicles revealed that thieves buy salvaged vehicles and use their documents to conceal stolen ones.

The officer, who requested anonymity to avoid jeopardising current car theft investigations, said the criminals buy salvages owned by insurance companies.

He said from the salvages, the criminals get genuine logbooks and registration numbers, which they use to camouflage stolen vehicles before selling them.

 “When vehicles are involved in accidents and the owner gets paid by the insurance company, they do not bother with the registration numbers. Criminals buy the salvage to get the original logbook, transfer form duly signed by the previous owner and clearance from the insurance company,” the detective said.

He added: “Their next step is to search for a car whose specifications match those of the damaged one. For instance, if the salvage was a Toyota Fielder, they ensure that they steal a similar model and replace its details with that of the salvage,” he says.

The officer explained that the gang removes the aluminum plate in the bonnet, which holds the genuine engine number, and replaces it with the salvaged car’s number.

The gangsters also remove the chassis number and replace it with the one from the salvage, and conceal it by welding the new number.

“Investigators are able to see the welding mark when they view it from the top of the bonnet. But smart car thieves rub it to remove traces of the welding material,” the officer says.

The Standard established that experienced thugs go to the extent of replacing the windscreens to get rid of the registration number, while others just scratched it off or concealed it with tape.

Another way of ascertaining a car’s registration, experts said, is looking at the original safety belt which is supposed to have a white piece of cloth at the base that indicates the year of manufacture and other details. Gangsters just cut these details out, something first-time car owners are rarely likely to notice.

Car buyers usually ask for a copy of a vehicle’s logbook from KRA but end up getting details of the salvage, which easily convinces them that the sale is genuine.

“Insurance companies fail when they don’t furnish KRA with a copy of the salvage documents, even though they are supposed to. The Government should perhaps come up with a way of destroying car salvage if vehicle theft is to be curbed,” the official warned.

He said thieves prefer selling such a car in locations far away from the previous owner of the written-off vehicle to avoid raising eyebrows or being detected.

Other targets

The cartel also targets imported vehicles passing through Kenya en route to Uganda or Burundi or other neighbouring countries.

They buy those vehicles or steal them for use in the country and in the process evade paying import duty.

Once they have the car, they use the same process to transfer documentation from salvaged vehicles to the ones they have bought or stolen.

The cartel has also been buying old number plates for motorcycles, tuk tuks and tractors and transferring them to stolen vehicles.

They have been known to print fake logbooks and ID cards, which they use to sell the cars.

Car buyers, security experts warned, should verify the authenticity of various documents used to buy cars from KRA and scene of crime officers.

The detectives we talked to explained that the criminals normally target cars parked outside banks, crowded residential areas and social places, sometimes with the assistance of people known to the owners.

To access the cars, the gangsters use magnets, which interfere with a car’s electronic system and disable the alarm and locks.

 “Some thugs pose as experts, promising to install tracking and alarm systems but end up disabling them so that thieves can easily steal the car. Some dishonest mechanics make duplicates of car keys for use by robbers later,” Kariuki added

According to police, some criminals have been hiring vehicles from car rental firms using fake documents and end up selling them using particulars of cars written off after accidents.

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