Every 40 seconds, a car or truck is stolen in the United States, adding up to a total of just less than 800,000 stolen vehicles a year. In 2009, 258 of every 100,000 cars were stolen [source: Insurance Information Institute]. But while some of those cars are stolen by criminals for their own transportation, and others are stolen by teenagers looking for a joyride, many are lifted by professional thieves. Instead of dumping the cars when the ride is over, these pros take them to chop shops, illegal garages where mechanics dismantle cars and sell them for parts. It's difficult to determine how many stolen cars are taken by professional thieves. Recent estimates put the figure at around 25 percent [source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration].
The professionalization of car theft began in the '70s, when organized crime syndicates began to take over the business of car theft from the amateurs. Car thefts reached epidemic levels during that decade. In 1978, for example, 1 million cars were stolen in the United States [source: U.S. Senate]. It was then that illegal chop shops began opening up across the country, eventually prompting Congressional hearings and a series of federal laws aimed at stopping the new trend. In 1970s New York City, the NYPD estimated that 55 percent of all cars stolen in the city ended up chopped for parts [source: U.S. Senate].
Car thefts have actually trended downward in the United States over the past three decades. In 2006, cars were stolen as often as every 26 seconds, but thefts were actually down 17 percent from 2008 to 2009 [source: Insurance Information Institute].
However, despite law enforcement efforts, chop shops are still alive and well in the United States, Canada, Latin America, Europe and Japan. In the United States, only 12.4 percent of stolen car cases are closed each year, and many of the cars that aren't found end up in professional car theft rings [source: Insurance Information Institute]. Of course, it's impossible to say how many of those missing vehicles end up chopped for parts. If the authorities knew what happened to them, more cases would be closed.
So what exactly is the purpose of a chop shop? In a nutshell they hide the identity of stolen cars and quickly turn them around and sell them for profit. Some are run independently, and some are part of larger criminal networks like gangs and the mafia. Read on to find out how these illegal chop shops can turn a stolen car into cold hard cash in a matter of a few hours.
How a Chop Shop Operates
Real chop shops aren't like the ones we see in the movies -- huge warehouses with rows of expensive sports cars and teams of mechanics sending sparks flying as they work. To keep working, chop shops need to be discrete and avoid detection by the authorities. Police do sometimes bust large chop shops, like one that was raided in Washington State in late 2010 that contained parts from 40 different cars inside [source: Sky Valley Chronicle]. But most shops operate out of small houses, residential garages or nondescript commercial spaces [source: U.S. Senate]. The goal is quick turnaround. Cars are taken in, taken apart and moved out within a few short hours.
Chop shops are often tied to organized crime syndicates [source: Statistics Canada]. Small individual shops are part of a larger network of thieves and illicit salvage yard operators. The thieves steal cars, often according to a list provided by the chop shop or the salvage yard [source: Onishi]. They may also bring cars not listed and try to fence them (make a quick, illegal exchange for cash) [source: Statistics Canada]. The chop shops will then dismantle the cars and deliver the parts to the salvage yard to be sold, though in some cases they will sell the parts themselves [source: U.S. Senate].
Chop shop mechanics can dismantle a car into its components in as little as one or two hours, with minimal training. Dismantling the car can be extremely profitable, since the price of an entire car's worth of replacement parts is usually much higher than the resale value of the car [source: McClearn]. The profit margin increases for older model years, since legitimately salvaged parts become more difficult to find as the cars become harder to find. Mostly, chop shops focus on selling body panels more than engine components [source: Pittsburgh Police].
So how's it done? Mechanics remove personal items and license plates from the car and destroy them. Next, they unbolt the front end of the car from the frame in one piece -- that includes the fender and the hood. They then cut out the windshield and unbolt the doors and seats (which are held on by as few as four bolts on many cars). Using an acetylene torch, they cut the roof supports at the front, and then cut through the floor under the steering wheel. The dash section (or the "cowl") is especially valuable for the airbags, which are usually not left intact in wrecked cars. The rear section of the car, with the roof attached, is left whole [source: U.S. Senate].
Where Chopped Cars End Up
Chop shops have several options for selling parts. Some end up on the black market. But they also unload parts through legitimate channels, either by selling them to mechanics or salvage yards who turn a blind eye, or through salvage yards of their own that appear legitimate to the public. To avoid having those parts traced back to the stolen cars, they can counterfeit or obscure the serial numbers that identify them.
Car engines and transmissions, while they can be sold for a good price, are often destroyed or dumped. The same is true of the car's frame. Those parts are tagged with vehicle identification numbers (VINs) in cars manufactured after 1981 [source: Carfax]. VINs, unique numbers assigned to every newly manufactured car, are trouble for chop shops. Among other uses, the VIN helps law enforcement trace stolen vehicles and their parts. Chop shops deal with VINs in several ways. Some simply dump the parts with the number after burning the VINs with a torch to destroy evidence. Some etch counterfeit numbers into the parts using special tools. Others purchase wrecked cars at salvage auctions so they can use the VIN from the wrecked car on the stolen car's parts [source: U.S. Senate].
Some chop shops get more creative, completely replacing the VIN on a stolen car so that the car can be sold intact, not for parts. This process is called re-Vinning. Chop shop operators purchase cars at salvage auctions that have been destroyed in accidents or fires. Chop shops want these vehicles mostly for their VINs. Once they have the car and its VIN, they steal a car of the same make and model. Then, they can switch the VIN plates (found inside the door and on the dash) on the two cars and claim that they have repaired a totaled car [source: Statistics Canada]. Another method, called a "body switch," requires taking the frame of the totaled car and using parts from the stolen car to replace the damaged parts and make the car usable [source: U.S. Senate].
Cars that have been re-Vinned are frequently shipped out of their country of origin using forged customs documents. They are then sold in foreign countries either on the black market or in the open [source: Statistics Canada]. The market for automobiles in underdeveloped countries has been increasing in recent years. Countries in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East all have a high demand for imported cars. Once the cars have been exported, it is extremely difficult for any law enforcement agents to track them down [source: McClearn]. This is another reason why so many stolen cars remain unrecovered.
- Carfax Inc. "Vehicle Identification Numbers (VINs)." (Jan. 20, 2011)http://www.carfax.com/vin.cfx
- Davis, Jennifer Krell. "Attorney General Announces Sentencing in Chop Shop Operation." Office of the Attorney General of Florida. Nov. 22, 2005. (Jan. 17, 2011)http://myfloridalegal.com/newsrel.nsf/newsreleases/5EDD7585EFC557F7852570C1006D3AD6
- Insurance Information Institute. "Auto Theft." October 2010. (Jan. 21, 2011)http://www.iii.org/media/hottopics/insurance/test4/
- Lamb, Joe. "FCSO Uncovers ATV 'Chop Shop' in Pulaski County." The Cabin. Aug. 24, 2009. (Jan. 17, 2011)http://thecabin.net/news/local/2009-08-24/fcso-uncovers-atv-%E2%80%98chop-shop%E2%80%99-pulaski-county
- Los Angeles Times. "Chop Shops." July 26, 1998. (Jan. 18, 2011)http://articles.latimes.com/1998/jul/26/local/me-7427
- McClearn, Matthew. "Hey, Dude, Where's Your Car? Auto Theft is Global and Growing." Canadian Business Online. Sept. 22, 2006. (Jan. 18, 2011)http://www.canadianbusiness.com/managing/strategy/article.jsp?content=20060922_80707_80707
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "Auto Theft and Recovery: Effects of the Anti Car Theft Act of 1992 and the Motor Vehicle Theft Law Enforcement Act of 1984." July 1998. (Jan. 20, 2011)http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/808761.PDF
- Onishi, Norimitsu. "Your Car, the Sitting Duck." The New York Times. March 19, 1995. (Jan. 18, 2011)http://www.nytimes.com/1995/03/19/nyregion/your-car-the-sitting-duck.html?scp=1&sq=car+sitting+duck&st=cse&pagewanted=all
- Pittsburgh Police. "Types of Car Theft." (Jan. 18, 2011)http://www.city.pittsburgh.pa.us/bat/html/types_of_car_theft.html
- Sky Valley Chronicle. "Big Chop Shop Goes Down." Nov. 18, 2010. (Jan. 18, 2011)http://www.skyvalleychronicle.com/FEATURE-NEWS/BIG-CHOP-SHOP-GOES-DOWN-br-Monroe-cops-and-others-bust-alleged-auto-chop-shop-south-of-Clearview-br-I-Three-women-and-three-men-arrested-br-40-vehicles-found-I-521327
- Statistics Canada. "Exploring the Involvement of Organized Crime in Motor Vehicle Theft." April 24, 2006. (Jan. 18, 2011)http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/85-563-x/85-563-x2004001-eng.htm
- Susko, Jenna. "Exclusive: Inside Look at Illegal Chop Shops in Mobile." Local 15 TV. Feb. 2, 2011. (Jan. 17, 2011)http://www.local15tv.com/mostpopular/story/EXCLUSIVE-Inside-Look-at-Illegal-Chop-Shops-in/IHq0UqvaCkuTf-ynPTjXIg.cspx
- U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee of Governmental Affairs. "Professional Motor Vehicle Theft and Chop Shops Hearings." U.S. Government Printing Office. April 25, 1980.