Vehicular crime continues to challenge the UK and its police forces. Regrettably, statistics show that vehicle-related crime of all kinds is on the rise, with November 2018 alone seeing nearly 41,000 incidents. 

As is often the case, trends emerge and peak in crime, and vehicle theft is no exception. 2018 saw this trend appear consistently, with some months such as October seeing as many as 27 classic cars reported stolen. The list is as significant as it is regrettable: Porsche 911s, E-Types, Mk2 Jaguars and more. In the case of the month in question, none were recovered.

This is worrying news for car owners. While previous years saw certain areas of the country targeted for specific vehicles such as VW campers, 2018 has shown the threat to be country-wide and targeted simply at any classic car that has high value. Commonly, this results in the theft of classics produced anywhere between 1950 and 1980.

Gang involvement

Established gangs are no strangers to adaptation and change, and the significant increases in the value of classic cars within the aforementioned range – sometimes as much as a 500% rise in value – has turned the heads of many groups that operate across the UK and Europe.

Although these gangs have main activities, such as drugs, robbery and money laundering, many have added the regular theft of classic cars to their portfolio of options. In many cases, the massive value of classic cars – and the high value of a single vehicle – makes the risk and reward alluring and often greater than that of the theft of other popular assets such as art or jewellery.

The rise of the 'dark web' – a secure, anonymous alternate internet commonly used by criminals and drug dealers – has given customers and sellers a new way to obtain the vehicles they want, with no questions asked and a large reduction in price due compared to purchase by legitimate means.

Unfortunately for victims of this crime, recovery statistics are low. In the UK, approximately 15% of stolen cars are recovered in reasonable condition. Even in the case of valuable classic cars, many are found destroyed or damaged significantly, commonly being used in car-related thefts such as 'ram raids'.

Provenance: The value of a car's history

Provenance – the paperwork that classic cars usually have that traces their history back to their creation – is proving a key factor in this trend of crime. Most classics have excellent provenance, boasting painstaking research by genuine experts.

Important aspects of this, such as location, transfers of ownership and restorations, are valuable for both buyers and sellers. It can serve as an indicator of potential theft in the vehicle's past and can protect the buyer by avoiding fraudulent attempts to artificially raise the vehicle's value.

Victims of theft have some small consolation should the vehicle be discovered at a later date: It remains their property, regardless of sale and ownership following the initial theft.

A modern challenge

Interestingly, the rise in 'modern classics' poses its own problems for provenance and the fair sale of classic vehicles.

Many modern classics – being no more than 30 years old in some cases – are a challenge for due diligence. In many cases, traders and auctioneers are selling on classics with a simple warning of an unknown past, trusting mainly in the reputation and selling history of the individual in question.

The ever-present internet is a fresh challenge for the legitimate trade of classics. As car clubs and enthusiast websites increase in number and popularity, capable fraudsters are able more than ever to create artificial histories for their stolen vehicles. These often even include registration documents, fake letters from manufacturers, and counterfeit certificates.

Physical alterations to stolen classics are many, and it can be difficult for anyone but a specific expert to notice the changes. Although basic changes such as the repainting or erasing of ID numbers are easily noticed, more advanced methods are sometimes used by criminals, requiring advanced and expensive processes to counter, such as the chemical and heat treatment of removed or edited serial numbers.

As one might imagine, these costly operations can stretch the budget and manpower of police forces across the UK and are often reserved for severe cases of theft. In the UK, the police have taken to outsourcing the specialist skills required to positively identify stolen cars, helping to increase the arsenal available to the police in their fight against gangs engaging in this activity.

Social media is similarly helping, with many platforms showing promise in the viral spreading of stories of theft that are, to the 'online bystander', interesting and share-worthy by nature.

This, combined with the coordination between police and tracking companies and specialist security firms, is leading to increased optimism in the fight against the theft of classics.