Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Responses to the Problem of Export of Stolen Vehicles Across Land Borders

Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you should consider possible responses to address the problem.

The response strategies discussed below provide a foundation of ideas for addressing your problem of vehicles stolen for export across land borders. These strategies are drawn from a variety of research studies and published accounts by police agencies. Several of the strategies may apply to your community's problem. The responses you adopt should be tailored to local circumstances, and each response should be justified based on reliable analysis. It is often more effective to implement several different responses; therefore, do not limit yourself to only one response.

This guide focuses primarily on what local police can do, but you should recognize that law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem. Do not limit yourself, therefore, to considering only what local police can do to reduce the problem of vehicles stolen for export across land borders.

General Considerations for an Effective Response Strategy

In some cases, your jurisdiction might try to get other agencies to adapt their established practices in order to perform a stronger role in preventing the export of stolen cars. For example, the U.S. Border Patrol operates 71 traffic checkpoints along the southern border, of which 32 are permanent and 39 are "tactical." The Border Patrol uses these checkpoints to search for illegal drugs and vehicles being used to smuggle illegal immigrants into the United States (GAO 2005). Using these checkpoints to also detect stolen vehicles being taken into Mexico would provide a partial solution to the difficulties of checking cars at border crossings.

In thinking about the respective roles of the different agencies, it is useful to consider the three main stages in the process of exporting stolen cars across land borders: (1) the vehicle is stolen, (2) the vehicle is moved across the border, and (3) the vehicle is sold or otherwise disposed of. Local police can make their greatest impact at the point of the initial theft,36 border agencies at the point of moving the vehicle across the border, and agencies such as the NICB once the vehicle is in the destination country.

In fact, the local police response to auto theft for export is closely linked to their response to auto theft in general. Responses discussed in two existing Problem-Specific Guides—No. 46, Thefts of and from Cars on Residential Streets and Driveways, and No. 10, Thefts of and from Cars in Parking Facilities), are therefore relevant to this problem as well.

  • Responses to thefts of vehicles from streets and driveways discussed in Guide No. 46 include:
    • Security measures that police can take, which include working with local government officials to improve street lighting, encouraging homeowners to use lighting around their homes, removing or trimming vegetation, and altering structures that give cover to thieves or facilitate their escape.†
    • Enforcement responses, which include increasing patrols by adding unmarked patrol units in theft hot spots, using foot and bicycle patrols, and using "bait" cars with GPS tracking technology.
    • Neighborhood newsletters and flyers, which can be used to educate citizens about ways to reduce the risks of theft. These might encourage car owners to secure their vehicles properly when leaving them parked, or to park them in their garages or driveways instead of on the street.
  • Responses to thefts of vehicles from parking facilities discussed in Guide No. 10 include:
    • Hiring parking attendants or using dedicated security patrols, improving surveillance at entrances/exits, and improving lighting throughout.
    • Securing the perimeter by installing fencing, entrance barriers, and electronic access to the facility.
    • Arresting and prosecuting persistent offenders.

These guides are worth reading carefully. However, as shown below, some of the responses will assume special significance, or will require modification, to deal effectively with theft of vehicles for export.

† Also see Police Response Guide No. 8, Improving Street Lighting to Reduce Crime in Residential Areas.

Specific Responses to Reduce the Problem of Export of Stolen Vehicles Across Land Borders

Local Police Responses

1. Paying close attention to high-risk parking facilities. Thieves looking for cars to steal for export often focus their attention on large parking facilities where cars are left unattended for long periods during the day. They also look for parking lots that are close to major roads leading to the border. In their analysis of targeted lots in Chula Vista, California, Plouffe and Sampson (2004) report that: "The highest-risk lots were generally located within one-tenth of a mile of a freeway. Medium-risk lots averaged less than three-quarters of a mile to a freeway. The lowest-risk lots of the 10 targets averaged over 2 miles to the freeway, emphasizing the importance of time to the border as a selection factor." You should perform a careful analysis of local parking facilities to identify those with high rates of vehicle theft, especially of unrecovered thefts. Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 6, Understanding Risky Facilities, can provide useful guidance in comparing parking facilities and in identifying risk factors.37

2. Increasing public awareness. Police might use the media to distribute information about models that are at a particular risk locally. This could be linked to crime prevention publicity campaigns that encourage vehicle owners to properly secure their parked cars and trucks, even during the heat of the day.† A campaign conducted in New South Wales by the National Roads and Motorists' Association (NRMA) involved disseminating leaflets with detailed information about high-risk locations and vulnerable models. The campaign was reinforced by extensive media coverage and through NRMA-sponsored discussions with neighborhood watch groups to raise awareness at the local level. The campaign was followed by a drop of about 20 percent in the number of thefts as measured by police data and insurance claims.38

† Crime prevention publicity campaigns have uncertain results (see Response Guide No: 5, Crime Prevention Publicity Campaigns, but ones focused on particular models and very specific precautions might be more effective.

3. Encouraging citizens to cooperate with police in vehicle checks. The Citizens Against Auto Theft (CAAT) program, developed and implemented by the police department in McAllen, Texas, involved placing colored decals on windows of cars that were not to be driven during certain hours of the day or into Mexico to serve as an alert to law enforcement officials.39 An evaluation of the program found that none of the 3,645 CAAT vehicles were stolen during 1990 and 1991. The program also served as a valuable public relations tool and reduced fear of theft among participating citizens.

4. Encouraging use of vehicle-tracking systems. LoJack® and OnStar® are examples of devices that owners can install on their vehicles that will identify their locations and assist in their recovery if they are stolen. Recovery rates as high as 95 percent are claimed for vehicles equipped with these devices,40 and LoJack is claimed to have been effective when used by the Massachusetts State Police.41 However, the effectiveness of these devices for detecting and recovering stolen vehicles along the U.S.-Mexico border is questionable for a few reasons. First, the systems are costly and car owners are likely to purchase them only if they own an expensive vehicle; few vehicles stolen for export would fall into this category. Second, the systems work only with participating law enforcement agencies and have a limited coverage area in both the United States and Mexico. Last, locating a stolen vehicle through LoJack might be useful only if the vehicle is still in the United States; once a vehicle is in Mexico, there may be little police can do to recover it. The "virtual fence" now used by LoJack might provide a partial solution to this problem. If the "fence" is breached, the system is activated and gives police trackers the opportunity to intercept the vehicle before it reaches the border. Despite this and other improvements that might make the systems more effective, their costs will limit their deployment in the effort to reduce the theft of vehicles for export to Mexico.

5. Using "bait vehicles" with tracking devices. More than 100 bait vehicles are being used by Southwest border states to assist in the prevention, disruption, and investigation of cross-border motor vehicle thefts.42 These bait vehicles, which are equipped with remote control technologies, are placed in vehicle theft hot spots. In 2003, the Arizona Automobile Theft Authority (AATA) began a statewide program with more than 30 bait vehicles. By April 2005, the use of these vehicles had led to 100 arrests in Scottsdale, Arizona (though not necessarily for the theft of vehicles for export).43

6. Working to establish a task force that focuses on the international trade in stolen cars. Many local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies have formed motor vehicle theft task forces that work together to enhance investigations that would lead to reducing the number of vehicle thefts and increasing the number of arrests of car thieves.44 In addition to investigating recovered vehicles, these task forces can also monitor chop shops and other facilities that might be involved in vehicle thefts. Examples of such task forces include the following:

a. The Texas Department of Public Safety created the Border Auto Theft Information Center in 1994, which acted as a link between U.S. and Mexican law enforcement. The staff worked closely with the National Insurance Crime Bureau to identify stolen vehicles. Bilingual staff operated a hotline that was accessible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to law enforcement on both sides of the border. In addition, the program involved working with U.S. Customs to identify stolen vehicles, training Mexican agencies to identify stolen vehicles, and working with these agencies toward recovering stolen vehicles from Mexico.45

b. In 2001, the El Paso County Auto Theft Prevention Task Force (Texas), a partnership between the El Paso Police Department and the El Paso County Sheriffs Office, sought to reduce the theft of vehicles for export through: (a) inspecting salvage and storage facilities, (b) interdicting vehicle shipments and delivery in both source and transit countries and, (c) disrupting and dismantling vehicle theft organizations through international criminal, civil, and regulatory enforcement.46
c. As a result of expanding its Vehicle Theft Information Systems (VTIS) database, the California Highway Patrol discovered that from 1983 through 1992 approximately 20,000 stolen vehicles were not recovered and that many of these were exported either through seaports or across the Mexican border. To address the problem, the agency developed several programs, including the Foreign Export and Recovery Program, which targets the exportation of stolen vehicles through California's land borders and coastal shipping ports, and the Mexico Liaison Program, which works to recover U.S.-based stolen vehicles from Mexico.47
7. Employing "DUI" checkpoints before the border. DUI checkpoints have proven effective, not just in apprehending drunk drivers, but also in arresting individuals suspected of committing crimes, the more common of which are possession of stolen property, possession of drugs and drug paraphernalia, and motor vehicle theft. These constitutionally allowable police tactics would offer a partial solution to the difficulties of checking cars at border crossings. They might be especially effective given their random deployment. Vehicles driven by motorists who are unwilling to go through the checkpoint would be followed and stopped by teams expecting this response from car thieves.

Other Agency Responses

8. Repatriating vehicles by treaty. The United States has developed bilateral agreements for recovering and repatriating stolen vehicles with many Latin American countries.48 However, the recovery process is long and cumbersome. The United States must first establish that a particular vehicle is being held by Mexican law enforcement authorities, and then the U.S. Consulate must submit a petition and vehicle documents to the Mexican federal court for review. Recovering the stolen vehicle is not possible until several months after these steps are taken.49 Most importantly, current treaties do not require the return of the stolen vehicle if local courts award it to a third party in the country of recovery.50 The NICB's repatriation services, which involve locating, identifying, and returning stolen vehicles found in Mexico, have also been widely used by vehicle financing companies. The program involves gathering information about these vehicles and cross-referencing it against the FBI's vehicle theft database. When a match is made, the financing company is notified, giving them the opportunity to have their vehicles returned to the United States. Although "repatriating" is a necessary tool in the fight against cross-border vehicle theft, there is a limited amount a local police agency can do to employ this technique.

9. Employing automatic license plate readers (LPRs) at border crossings. License plate readers can capture an image of the front and rear license plate and provide real-time vehicle information to the Customs and Border Protection network.51 As long as the vehicle has been reported stolen, these readers make it theoretically possible for Customs and Border Protection to identify stolen vehicles. Unfortunately, reports of using the readers, at least in California, have not been encouraging. They are sometimes out of service and are easily foiled (for example, when plastic covers the plate or if the vehicle passes too quickly into Mexico).52 In addition, customs officials are often forced to ignore the alarms from these readers due to the high volume of vehicles crossing the border.53 This does not mean LPRs will never be useful, as they are constantly being developed and upgraded. For example, mobile LPRs, which are now available, could be deployed randomly at busy crossings to keep offenders guessing about where the LPRs are located. They might also be more effective if they are used not at the border but on roads leadingto the border by staff that could focus solely on their alerts.

Responses with Limited Effectiveness

10. Intensively monitoring all border crossings. At first sight, this would seem to be a vital preventive measure. However, the vast majority of vehicles crossing the border are not stolen and increasing border checks could be costly in terms of staff time, and might result in major delays and traffic jams. These delays could be seen as working against the provisions of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). In any case, there is no clear evidence that such increased checking would deter vehicle thefts. An experimental program implemented at the two international bridges in Brownsville, Texas, involved deploying patrol teams on the bridges at anticipated peak times. Vehicle theft arrest rates did not improve and local vehicle theft rates did not decrease.54 In addition, there is always the danger of displacing the export of stolen vehicles to adjacent border sites.