Los Angeles is home to an underground economy driven by the parts of pilfered cars. In backyards, garages and even a few illegitimate auto body shops, "chop shop" mechanics dissect stolen cars.
Crooks either forward the remains to buyers desperate for replacement parts or use the stolenpieces to rebuild salvaged vehicles and resell them.
Chop shops can be found anywhere, and are run by the "criminally bent and mechanically talented," said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Lt. Jack Jordan. "Some are very talented."
Favorite spots include residences in cities such as Palmdale and Lancaster, with ample open space to hide stripped or stolen cars. In the San Fernando Valley, the hottest spots for chop shops are Pacoima, North Hollywood and Van Nuys.
While detectives must have a warrant approved by a judge to enter a house or a residential garage to check for a chop shop, the California Vehicle Code allows full-time auto theft investigators to randomly inspect dismantlers and repair shops for stolen automobile parts.
Ten years ago, when Community Effort to Combat Auto Theft formed, its investigators began searching auto body shops and found three out of five had stolen parts.
Now, detectives say, it's not as much of a problem. Mechanics are aware of the law and most are legitimate. Nonetheless, CECAT detectives still inspect more than 400 body shops a year. They estimate that one in 20 are found to have stolen parts.
But why do they do it?
Chop shops are big business. The more proficient chop shops can steal and strip about two cars a week. In February, Los Angeles police busted one chop shop believed to have been taking in $3 million.
HOW IT'S DONE
1. Thieves will buy a stripped, flooded or burned car from an auction or a salvage yard for anywhere from $500 for an older-model car to $1,500 for a newer vehicle. The price also depends on how damaged the car is.
2. They will then steal a car of the same make and model (preferably the same color) and will strip the parts from the stolen car and build them onto the frame of the salvaged car.
3. Thieves do this because they have the title and a vehicle identification number for the salvaged car. The car now looks brand new and it is nearly impossible to discern that the parts are stolen because they carry no identification numbers.
4. Often the chop shops are operated in residential garages. Thieves will drive a stolen car into the garage and in 30 minutes roll out the stripped frame onto the street, its parts already removed.
TIPS TO DETER THIEVES
Car owners can take steps to make their vehicles more difficult targets for thieves. The first line of defense is simply locking the car door--a step drivers should take even if they are stepping out "only for a minute."
Auto theft detectives suggest a steering wheel locking device to deter thieves from breaking into cars.
Another preventive measure is a "kill switch" that must be activated before starting the car. Detectives caution that car owners should hide such a switch--though having one underneath a dashboard is convenient for a driver, it is also convenient for a thief to spot and then steal the car.
Installation of Vehicle tracking devices made by Lojack Inc. and Teletrac Corp. may not stop a crook from stealing a car, but it will make it much easier for police to locate the vehicle and get it back.
Car owners should park their vehicles in a secured area, preferably the garage and as close to their house as possible. In shopping center parking lots, owners are urged to park close to stores and to other cars. Though people may save their car from an errant scratch, thieves are more likely to steal a car parked on the outskirts of a parking lot than in a crowded area.
*Often, chop shop operators will sell a car for cash by parking it on a residential street and asking a few thousand less for the car than what a comparable model would be worth.
*Detectives warn buyers to know who they are buying vehicles from and to be wary about people who say they're selling a car for somebody else. Check their identification.
*Also check the title. Chopped up cars or restored vehicles will say salvage on the title. Buyers should realize that means the car was once deemed destroyed and that many of the parts are not the originals. And rebuilt cars may have stolen parts.
*Some insurance companies will not insure salvaged cars. California law states that drivers who don't have insurance can't register their vehicles.
*If someone unwittingly buys a car that has been stolen, they become a secondary victim of auto theft and lose the purchase price.
*California law allows used-car buyers to have a vehicle first inspected by a mechanic.
The penalty for those convicted of running a chop shop is two to four years in prison. Anyone convicted of grand theft auto is sentenced to between 18 months and three years in prison.