Thursday, August 5, 2010

Death to car thieves

Philippine Daily Inquirer/OPINION/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

A WICKED SMILE forms on my lips and a nasty glint appears in my eyes whenever there’s news of car thieves and carjackers, and their ilk— lowlifes from hell—getting mowed down in a bloody gun battle with law enforcers. I feel like shouting, “And here’s a few more for your skulls, for the car you stole from me.”

And I think of a photo taken years ago that shows me wearing ear muffs while aiming a .45 and firing at a target. I did quite well but that was the first and last time I was ever in a target range. I am not gun crazy but my mind does a Dirty Harry when I think of the lowlifes that menace society.
And why not. I was a victim. That was way back in Dec. 2002, but I will never forget the day, the shock, the rage, the feeling of helplessness. Who said journalists aren’t supposed to feel helpless in that kind of situation? It’s really a nightmare for anyone and you keep wishing you’d wake up in the morning and find your car on the driveway. But no, I found myself in the police station and almost immediately doing the paper trail so that the vehicle could be tracked down, and if not, so that I could get a certificate of non-recovery and make insurance claims.
As they say, the sooner you work on the trauma the sooner you get over it. I had a new car in 30 days because I got my certificate of non-recovery a few weeks after my car was stolen and the insurance paid me right away. It could have taken longer but the head of the Traffic Management Group at that time was absolutely certain this journalist would not fake the theft of her own car.

I became such an expert on the subject of car theft that I ended up writing a long three-part series (with interviews and all) for the Motoring Section of the Inquirer. That is, the hows, the whos, the whats, the wheres. But what was not yet in practice then among car thieves was the use of sexy young women as spotters and social networking in the Internet such as Facebook or Twitter as part of the modus operandi. The latter gave the felons away and led to their capture and the death of one of them, Ivan Padilla.

And so with the latest news headline on the alleged leader of a car theft syndicate gunned down at the ripe age of 23—Padilla, that is—many car owners who lost their cars to thieves should be rejoicing. But this guy couldn’t have been one of those who stole my car because in 2002 he was only 15 years old. But he has ancestors and they must still be alive.

There are several ways to lose a car. The police have codes for them. SWP means “stolen while parked” (even in your own driveway). Mine was stolen in front of a friend’s house while we were having Christmas lunch. FT means “forcibly taken.” FTR means “failed to return,” which applies to rented cars. SWP is the most common.

Faking a car theft in order to make insurance claims and at the same time reincarnate one’s own “stolen” vehicle is an amazing operation in itself which involves a number of accomplices. There are a number of ways to “kill” a car and resurrect it with a new identity.

FT or car theft was what recently happened to the Bernas family that was aboard a van and going home at dawn from the airport. The husband/father was shot and left bleeding on the sidewalk while the criminals sped away with the rest of the family and their driver. The bleeding victim was picked up by a Good Samaritan, brought to a hospital and, thank God, survived.

Those who have lost cars should bear in mind that immediate recovery happens if the stolen car is abandoned after being used as a getaway vehicle in a crime. If there are no leads, recovering a vehicle after a few days have passed is like looking for a needle in a haystack.

But the question remains: Where do stolen cars go? Why can’t the police find the places where these big items are brought? These stolen items are not pieces of jewelry that can fit into a box.

Not all stolen cars undergo a make-over and are sold whole. Many are dismantled right away and the parts are sold. This is called “chop-chop.”

But why should a relatively new vehicle that commands a good price be chopped up? The answer: the car thieves, particularly the small-time ones, put in no big investment and use only light instruments to operate. They want the salable parts turned into cash right away. There are always buyers, among them, assemblers of vehicles and dealers in car parts and accessories.

The “chop-chop” operators sell the unserialized parts. The engine and chassis, which have the identity numbers, are relegated to the junkyard for recycling.

According to a transportation official I had interviewed, car theft thrives “because there are takers.” Police and transportation officials know that many stolen vehicles are taken to nearby provinces where “chop-chop” shops operate. On a clear day, one could drop by those places to shop for items such as bumpers, mirrors, fenders, windshields—name it.

Vehicles stolen at random and to be sold whole need only a paint job and re-accessorizing. And new papers, of course.

Many “chop-chop” parts end up in legit car parts shops in cities. These items are called “original” or “genuine,” meaning they came from the original makers. They are sold alongside new “non-orig” parts which are “not as good as the orig.” Banawe Street in Quezon City is one place to go for car parts and installation, if one knows what to look for. But it is also the place where many stolen parts end up.

A pair of side mirrors costs thousands in the casa but in Banawe it could go lower than P500 if one knows how to haggle and intimidate the hawkers, as in, “I know those are stolen and those are probably mine and you could be in trouble.”

Let me end this by saying that car thieves do not operate without coddlers in high places.