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26.05.2007 Crime & Punishment

How our SUVs end up in Ghana

By Stewart Bell, National Post
How our SUVs end up in Ghana

TORONTO • The alarm system roused the Toronto family at 2:30 a.m. Downstairs, the rear French doors had been pried open but the burglar did not seem to have taken anything.

Then they noticed the car keys were missing. Their 2006 Acura MDX had been stolen while they slept. The alarm company came and the police came, but the car was long gone.

Five months later, a freighter arrived off the Gold Coast of West Africa and unloaded its cargo of metal shipping containers at Tema, the busiest port in Ghana and the departure point for the country's main export, cocoa.

When local customs inspectors peeked inside the shipping containers, they found not clothes or household items but luxury cars with Ontario and Quebec licence plates.
One of them was a 2006 Acura MDX.

The Interpol officer in Ghana called his counterpart in Ottawa. A check of the vehicle identification number confirmed it was the same Acura pilfered from the driveway in Toronto.

Hundreds of cars stolen in Canada are now turning up in Ghana, according to Canadian auto insurance officials and investigators.

The situation is getting so bad that the Canadian insurance industry recently sent a former RCMP officer to the country to train local customs authorities and police.

"It does seem to be the current hot route for vehicles," said Rick Dubin of the Insurance Bureau of Canada. "That whole area on the western side of Africa is a real destination point for stolen vehicles."

Why Ghana?
According to investigators, Ghana has emerged as the new destination for hot cars because of a major anti-corruption campaign under way in nearby Nigeria.

As Lagos has become a bigger risk for auto theft rings, they have moved up the coast to Tema. From Ghana, the cars are trucked throughout the region - to Togo, Benin, Cote d'Ivoire and Nigeria.

"Most of these vehicles aren't for local consumption," said Ben Jillett, a former police officer who is
now an investigator with the IBC.

Buyers in those countries will pay up to $50,000 for a luxury SUV. Even with the $5,000 it costs to ship a car 8,000 kilometres to Ghana, the profit margins are significant. And it is Canadian drivers who pay in the end through increased insurance premiums.

For the auto insurance industry, the Canadian Nissan Muranos, BMW 320s and Toyota Rav-4s turning up in Ghana are a symptom of a gap in law enforcement.

The Canada Border Services Agency inspects goods coming into the country, but it does not have the authority to check cargo that is being exported out of the country.

The trouble, the agency says, is that its job is to enforce the Customs Act. Exporting stolen cars is not a Customs Act violation, it is a Criminal Code violation. "We can only do what we can within our legal parameters," said Derek Mellon, an agency spokesman.

The CBSA will only check outbound cargo if there are grounds for suspicion, such as improper paperwork or a tip from police. One such tip resulted in the recent seizure of 40 stolen luxury vehicles at the port of Halifax. Their intended destination: Ghana.

The CBSA also participated in a pilot project with auto insurers two years ago that stopped the export of 61 stolen vehicles but the inspections ended after three months. The CBSA said it was concerned its participation might violate the Customs Act.

Industry has been lobbying Ottawa to change that. Mr. Dubin met last year with Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day, and has been talking with CBSA officials but there is still no agreement on what should be done.

Mr. Dubin finds that frustrating.

"Basically they're stating that they don't have responsibility to look for stolen vehicles, and they haven't been," he said. "If they don't have it, then our government should be basically appointing somebody at the ports to look for stolen vehicles and stop this huge activity and organized crime."

In the meantime, the insurance industry has been working with the Ghanain authorities to teach them how to spot stolen cars, which often arrive in containers with false manifests.

Mr. Jillett has just returned from Ghana, where he met with local customs and police officers, who showed him their stockpile of seized Canadian cars.

"One of the questions that popped up a couple of times was, 'How are these vehicles allowed to leave your country and come to the shores of our country?' " he said.

Mr. Jillett has identified hundreds of stolen Canadian cars that are now in Ghana. Eventually, they will be shipped back to Canada and returned to insurance companies, which will sell them to recoup some of their losses.

During Mr. Jillett's trip to Ghana two weeks ago, yet another shipment of suspect luxury vehicles arrived at Tema port. One of them was a black 2003 Mercedes 320 convertible.

A quick check confirmed the car had been reported stolen in Toronto in April. The police report said a man had walked into a leasing company and provided a driver's licence, Social Insurance Number, three references and a letter from a computer company indicating he was an employee who earned $67,000 a year.

The man drove away with the car and that was the last the leasing company heard of him. He never made a payment and all his identification turned out to be fraudulent - but by then the car was already well on its way across the Atlantic to Ghana.

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