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Anthony and Danielle WilsonStuart Woodward/BBC

Anthony and Danielle Wilson awoke at their Essex home to find their Range Rover had vanished. The vehicle was later found loaded on a container at a UK port bound for the Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa. The Wilsons’ experience, police warn, is becoming increasingly common.

It took thieves just 63 seconds to steal the Wilsons’ Range Rover Sport from their gated home in a village near Bishop’s Stortford.

The theft was caught on the family’s CCTV system. It shows two people involved – one stealing the Wilsons’ car and another driving the vehicle they arrived in.

“You can see one of them creeping up the drive,” said Mrs Wilson, whose parents were staying with them on the night of the theft. “He’s literally leaning into my car, doing something, switched the interior light off, and then trundled it down the drive.”

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The couple, who have a three-year-old child, believe they may have been followed by the thieves for some time before the car, which costs about £100,000 new, was taken.

“Police had said there was a chance that I’d been followed because they’d obviously got in it without the keys, so maybe they cloned the key or found a way to get into it when I’d been out and about, and I only ever go anywhere with my little toddler so it worried me then.

“I just found it really scary and the more I thought about it, the worse it got.”

Mr Wilson said: “When you watch the CCTV, it’s almost incredible that somebody walks up to the car, and 63 seconds later is driving an expensive car down the driveway having never seen the keys in their life.”

The car’s tracking system alerted police when it got out of range of the keys, which were still with the Wilsons. Officers arrived at the Wilsons’ home to investigate shortly after the car was discovered missing from the driveway.

About a month after the car was stolen in July, it was discovered wedged inside a container at the Port of Tilbury, in Essex.

The Range Rover inside a container at the Port of Tilbury

Port of Tilbury Police

It is thought it was one of a growing number of vehicles stolen to order by organised criminals with international connections.

Such thefts are on the increase, according to Essex Police’s Stolen Vehicle Intelligence Unit.

“It is getting hotter,” said PC Paul Gerrish.

In 2021, the three-strong unit recovered about 480 cars. In 2022, more than 600 cars were recovered.

While PC Gerrish is pleased they have recovered more vehicles, he is concerned that the overall number of thefts continues to rise.

“It’s a lucrative market,” he said.

Car thefts, he said, are either carried by “organised gangs targeting one particular make or model of car” or opportunists.

The force has a number of ongoing operations targeting organised criminal gangs.

“There clearly is a business model being followed,” he said, “in as much as certain makes, models and certain colours are being targeted to fulfil an order.

“At times, those vehicles are being shipped out of the country.”

PC Paul Gerrish

Stuart Woodward/BBC

Others are sold in the domestic used car market for slightly under the usual market value, he said. “Unsuspecting buyers part with their hard-earned money thinking that they’ve bought a bargain.”

It is only later they learn they have unwittingly bought a stolen car.

Not all stolen vehicles are intact when they are sold on.

“On occasions we have recovered vehicles where they’ve literally just been completely cut in half,” PC Gerrish said. “They are only interested in the front end of the vehicle, which contains the engine in the ancillary components.

“That’s the most valuable part to them. The rest of vehicle will be crushed and disposed of – and that can be vehicles worth £100,000.

“They’ll just chop them in half and sell them on.”

He told how his unit had intercepted a container loaded with the front ends of vehicles bound for Dubai.

“The total haul in one of our jobs is worth well over a million pounds of stolen cars in one hit,” he said.

To protect cars, PC Gerrish urged owners to explore their car’s security system and, if their vehicle’s manufacturer uses a double lock deadbolt system, to always remember to double lock their car.

He also recommended owners consider other security options, such as Faraday key pouches and steering wheel locks.

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Renato Schipani is a criminal intelligence officer focusing on stolen vehicles with Interpol.

He said it was no surprise the Wilsons’ Range Rover was poised for transportation to DR Congo.

Mr Schipani added that cars stolen in UK often end up there or in countries such as Kenya, Uganda and Sudan because of the demand for right-hand drive vehicles. The cars sent to these countries are nearly always large, luxury SUVs, like the Wilsons’ Range Rover.

West Africa, on the other hand, was the key “hub” for cars stolen from North America and western Europe because of the demand for left-hand drives.

He said the levels of theft had increased since the Covid pandemic, with more and more vehicles being stolen and exported to Africa amid the rising cost of living.

Cargo arrival checks at African ports, he said, were limited compared with countries such as the UK.

He said it was currently “too easy” to export stolen vehicles. He said not enough attention was paid to outgoing containers and “when they arrive, there is little preparation and attention at the destination”.

Interpol, he said, was working on improving the awareness and education of port staff.

Car thefts, Mr Schipani said, formed just one cog in a far larger criminal machine.

“Cars are going to be used as a form of payment for drugs or money laundering,” he said. “Vehicle theft is now part of a larger programme for bigger groups – funding terrorist groups, in drug trafficking and people trafficking.

“Vehicle crime is the vehicle for other crime,” he said.

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During 2022, officers with the National Vehicle Crime Intelligence Service seized 155 high-value stolen cars destined for sale overseas.

In one operation, nine vehicles were found in three containers destined for DR Congo and a further 16 vehicles inside five containers were brought back to the UK before they arrived in Africa.

The containers were listed as containing household items. In fact, all contained stolen cars with false number plates.

A black Range Rover

Port of Tilbury Police

As for the Wilsons, they endured an unexpected insult after the injury of having their car stolen. The thieves were caught speeding at Ongar, in Essex, about half an hour after the vehicle was taken.

Two weeks after the theft, the couple received a speeding notice.

Because their vehicle has been damaged, they have yet to be reunited with the car. And, they say, they might not get the car back depending on what the insurance company decides.

Mrs Wilson said she was concerned if she got a similar replacement vehicle, she would live in fear of such an incident happening again.

The couple said they planned to “step up” their home security measures despite the potential cost and “inconvenience” of doing so.

Mrs Wilson said: “But if it takes ten minutes to drive your own car because of all your safety measures, you start asking yourself whether you really want to go out in it – or is it easier not to have one at all?”

The Port of Tilbury has been approached for comment.

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