What does a chop shop do?

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].