BALTIMORE —Many of the ships that leave the Port of Baltimore travel to west Africa, and criminals are finding it a place to get their stolen vehicles out of the country.
The Port of Baltimore exports and imports more vehicles than any other port in the country.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers in the Baltimore field office set a record in 2019 for recoveries of stolen vehicles.
“The application shows it’s stolen and the VIN matches the title they presented for export, so (it’s) another stolen vehicle,” said Patricia Scull, assistant port director of tactical operations.
The 2019 record includes seaports in Wilmington, Delaware; Philadelphia and Baltimore. Collectively, officers at those ports recovered 246 stolen vehicles worth more than an estimated $10.3 million.
Ninety-five percent of the vehicles were destined to west African nations, including Benin, Gambia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.
“There’s certain organizations within the national capital region that are stealing automobiles or obtaining automobiles, by fraud and stealing cars, bringing them to the Port of Baltimore and attempting to export them overseas,” said Adam Rottman, area port director.
The vehicles may be from carjackings, stolen off the street or car lots.
“Another method they use is obtain false identification and go into car dealerships or rental car companies, lease the car or rent the car, and as soon as they drive off the lot, put it in a container and bring it here to ship overseas,” Rottman said.
When a container comes in, the CBP checks the manifest for fraudulent paperwork, like bills of sale or titles. Next, they X-ray the containers against what’s on paper. In one case, the manifest said “two Toyotas” — a Highlander and a Lexus. Once they looked inside the container, they saw the cars were there. But they checked the VIN using new technology that lets the officer take a picture of the VIN and run it through all law enforcement databases. That check near instantly exposed the truth about the vehicles that they are stolen.
The vehicles are stuffed into containers with two on the bottom and two hanging from the ceiling, making dangerous work to get them out of the container. Some of the containers are stuffed with other goods, like mattresses or water.
CBP also checks the vehicles for items hidden inside the car, including guns, humans, drugs and more.
Range Rovers are the No. 1 recovered vehicle at the Port of Baltimore. The oldest vehicle recovered was a 1988 MACK Truck. The most expensive vehicle recovered was 2017 Audi R8 valued at $162,900.
“The owner was notified by the local police. He came down here and picked up the car himself,” Rottman said.
CBP said their work puts a dent in the wallets of transnational criminals and protects the national, state and local economies.