Rampant car thievery plagues Israeli motorists Recovery of vehicles is a constant challenge for police and insurers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

TEL AVIV, Israel -- When Arie Raviv discovered that his new Volvo had been stolen one January morning, the Israeli dentist didn't waste time calling the police. He dialed the number of his missing cellular phone.

And the suspected thief answered. Over the phone, Raviv negotiated the return of his Volvo -- and of his cellular phone -- for $6,000.

"I had nothing to lose," Raviv says.

The month before, thieves stole his wife's car. At the police station, Raviv called the car's phone. Then, too, someone answered and offered to return the car for a price. But a police officer warned Raviv that it might be a trap. Raviv hung up. His wife's car was never found.

In Israel, car owners, insurance companies and the police are using whatever means possible to combat an ever-increasing number of car thefts. Motorcycle-riding private detectives, heat-sensing helicopters for hire, car-tracking radar systems for sale -- they are all part of the arsenal.

In 1996, a car was stolen every 15 minutes, a total of 37,390 vehicles. Given the 1.5 million cars in Israel, police say, the theft rate was among the highest in the world, and the pace this year is even higher. Most of the stolen cars are never recovered; 24,000 car thefts last year are unsolved.

The phenomenon reflects the region's political problems.

Cars stripped or resold

Jewish gangs work with Palestinian gangs. Thieves strip the stolen cars for parts, while the stripped chassis pile up in car graveyards in the West Bank, police say. Or the vehicles are resold to unsuspecting buyers.

Stolen cars that resurface in the Palestinian-controlled Gaza Strip can usually be identified by their license plates -- the pink and white, temporary tags issued by the Palestinian authority. Gaza officials have about 15,000 such cars on their rolls -- vehicles for which the owners have no proof of legal ownership.

Palestinian police have been found driving stolen cars; a deputy police inspector admitted to his Israeli colleague that a thief sold him his Hyundai. And some Palestinian police have been caught in the act -- arrested and charged with auto theft.

"As far as we're concerned the [Palestinian] authority is a black hole," said Yossef Rosenberg, chief of the Israeli police's crimes investigation unit. "We believe thousands of vehicles disappear in this black hole."

In the early 1990s, the Israelis tried to stop the flow of stolen cars to Gaza by digging a ditch across sections of the border and erecting a fence. The thieves tossed in barrels and bales of hay to fill the ditch. They cut through the fence.

When Israel closes its borders to Palestinians, the police official said, car thefts plummet.

"After last year's bus bombings in Jerusalem, the number of car thefts there dropped by 80 percent," he said. "When the closure eases up, the number increases to its usual rate."

Asaf Hefetz, Israel's police chief, has stressed the "prime importance" of Palestinian police cooperation in recovering stolen cars. Arie Raviv, the dentist, had help from the Palestinian police in the Volvo's return.

Ronen Gordon of the Moked investigation agency also relied on Palestinian officers.

In February, Moked investigators received word about a Mitsubishi truck stolen from a restaurant parking lot in the southern Israeli town of Bersheva. An hour after the theft, the owner's insurance company called Moked.

The hope was to find the truck before it was disassembled into parts. Investigators called the truck's mobile phone. The thief named his price: $2,400. The investigators agreed to meet the thief, but also sought help from Palestinian police in Hebron.

During the meeting, the Palestinian police sprang from a hiding place and arrested three men. "They gave us back the car without any damage," said Gordon.

He refuses to pay ransoms. "If you pay one time to the thief," he said, "you give him a reason to steal another car."

The stolen car business costs consumers and insurers money, while earning money for companies that help recover the vehicles. Insurers estimate that each stolen car costs them about $13,000. They hire investigators to verify stolen car claims. The private detectives often work in tandem with helicopter pilots, who, with the aid of special equipment, direct ground forces to the stolen cars.

The models most susceptible to theft change as the auto market changes.

"As long as Subarus accounted for 30 percent of the private cars [in Israel], they were also 30 percent of the stolen cars," said Rosenberg, the Israeli police official. "When Subaru's popularity dropped, its popularity among the thieves dropped."

Rosenberg attributes the difficulty in recovering stolen cars to the speed and agility of the thieves. He recalled a police stakeout of a car mechanic's shop. "A Peugeot 504 arrived, and in front of our eyes it was taken apart, down to its last screw, within 20 minutes," he said.

Ituron, a Tel Aviv-based company, has developed a microchip that sends out a radio signal, allowing a stolen car to be tracked. The company says that 10,000 Israelis have installed the chip in their cars and boasts that it has a 95 percent recovery rate.

Helicopter surveillance

But helicopter pilot Amnon Fiegenbaum said solving the routine cases is mostly a matter of luck. His choppers scour areas that border the "green line," the 1967 border between Israel and the occupied territories. They fly over the "car cemeteries," often identified by the preponderance of a certain car brand.

It costs from $430 to $1,000 an hour to hire a helicopter. But Fiegenbaum says the cost is worth it. "What makes more sense, $25,000 for a new car or $2,000 to find your old one?"

The choppers also assist in speedy getaways.

Ilan Shuster, manager of another helicopter company, recalled the case of a suspicious Subaru pickup truck. One of his chopper crews noticed the pickup alongside a building in an orchard near the Palestinian-controlled city of Tulkarm. The truck sped away after spotting the helicopter.

"We landed near the building," said Shuster. "We saw a warehouse and inside a new Land Rover with the keys in the ignition and a Mazda which was stolen several hours earlier."

Members of Shuster's crew got into the cars. As they tried to drive away, the suspected thief tried to lock the gate of the warehouse. Shuster said, "We used the Land Rover to crash through the gate, drove out and the helicopter radioed instructions on how to get away."

Pub Date: 4/06/97

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