Unfolding the mystery of the stolen BMWs

Let’s call him John. John works for a security company. Late one August night, while the streets of Darien lie stagnant and empty, an alarm sounds at a luxury car dealership.

Diligent John springs into action. He drives from Stamford to Darien to inspect the alarm. He scans the scene with flashlight in hand. Seeing nothing he returns to headquarters.

Not long after returning, the alarm sounds again. Perhaps annoyed but nonetheless committed, John returns to the scene. Seeing nothing again, he presumes there could be a faulty alarm system. He drives back to Stamford. Again.

The alarm sounds a third time. Now he’s written it off as a faulty system. He ignores the call. Little did he know that vigilant thieves lurked in the shadows while he scoped the dealership, noting his response times and hoping the third alarm would be the charm that enabled them to carry out their daring caper.

And a charm it was, at least for the thieves, who made off with half a million dollars in luxury cars. Gone with hardly a trace.

Alarming

While the above scenario is a fictionalized account, something similar might have happened when BMW of Darien was stripped of eight BMWS in late August, including several that belonged to customers who were getting repairs.

Longtime FBI agent Frank Scafidi can attest to this distraction technique, and claims it is more evidence that the culprits involved were organized criminals, and not your garden-variety outlaws.

“That’s a sign that there’s someone who’s got some wattage between the ears,” Scafidi said of the thieves. “They probably know the alarm went to the company,” and not to the police. “Meanwhile, they’re cleaning the place out,” Scafidi added.

Securitas, the company that provides the alarm service to BMW, declined on several occasions to comment. A similar event happened last summer when Securitas responded to BMW of Darien for an alarm and saw nothing. When employees came to work the next day, they saw a customer’s BMW propped up on a spare tire, with $4,800 worth of Savini rims and tires gone.

But it could be difficult to blame Securitas because the security agreement between BMW and Securitas is unknown, said retired Police Lt. Joel Kent, who owns FBN Security in Windsor. Contracts between the customer and the security company often preclude the company from being able to adequately provide the security necessary to prevent such a lofty theft.

“I’ve seen methods of distraction and things like that,” said Kent, who also stays busy in his numerous administrative roles, such as chairman of the education committee for the Connecticut Alarm and Systems Integrators Association and senior instructor for the National Training School of the Electronic Security Association.

“The alarm industry is aware of such distractions,” Kent said, adding that a number of client-driven factors can prevent a security company from fully investigating alarms. Some have said that propriety is paramount, and that looking into neighboring properties to see if someone is watching the security company’s response could be an invasion of privacy.

False alarms are also fairly common. Darien homeowners are fined $150 for false alarms. Scafidi said that when he was a cop in Los Angeles, his fellow officers would often ignore home alarms because more immediate and violent crimes would happen simultaneously.

Responding

Police won’t comment on a matter that’s under investigation, but State Police Lt. J. Paul Vance told The Times that he hasn’t seen a theft of this magnitude in his 38 years on the force.

“I’ve been around a long time,” Vance said. “I’ve heard of multiple thefts, but usually it’s parts and wheels and rims. I can’t recall in the recent past a theft of this volume.”

Darien turned the investigation over to the statewide Auto Theft Task Force, which is comprised of state police officers. Vance said he hadn’t heard of any similar thefts taking place in the region.

“This is a rather unique theft, if you will,” Vance said. “We’ve shared information with other law enforcement… We’re attempting to ensure we’re all on the same page.”

Luxury car thefts are a lucrative worldwide industry. Interpol, an international police agency, estimated it’s an $18 billion global enterprise, with money disappearing into a “parallel economy.” Luxury cars often end up overseas, and some even end up being driven by government officials, according to Miami Police Maj. Greg Terp.

While it can be difficult to break the deeply embedded crime rings that are often responsible for luxury car thefts, arrests do happen. Authorities in Philadelphia busted 26 people in April who were putting the stolen cars onto cargo ships bound for West Africa.

Pennsylvania police recovered 41 stolen vehicles, valued at more than $1.6 million, including a $120,000 Porsche Panamera. But these alleged crooks’ MO was not quite the same as the Darien thieves. The Pennsylvania people would go to dealerships when they were open for business and look around for keys, and they would sometimes use violence, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

The Darien thieves pried open a locked door to enter the service bay, police said, where one of the vehicles was stolen. The culprits then busted through a padlock to steal seven more Beamers from a fenced-in lot. They found the keys and drove away.

Searching

What happened to the vehicles is subject to speculation, but experts say they were likely shipped overseas. U.S. Customs officials are charged with monitoring outgoing cargo at U.S. seaports, examining tens of thousands of containers with x-rays, gamma rays, and other advanced monitoring tools.

“Targeting stolen vehicles is interesting work,” states the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol website.

Leading the country in auto theft investigation is the a Seaport Vehicle Export Team, which helped the FBI and U.S. Customs recover numerous vehicles that were part of an elaborate trade-based money-laundering scheme.

In just over a year from 2009 to 2011, Miami cops processed 157,520 vehicles and recovered 245 vehicles and parts worth nearly $9.9 million. Most of the vehicles were destined for the Caribbean, South and Central America, and Europe, according to officials. Among the vehicles seized were heavy equipment trucks, SUVs, all terrain vehicles and motorcycles. U.S. Customs data for Connecticut and New York were not made available as of press time.

Exporting a car requires 72 hours advanced notice to customs officials, which gives them time to research whether the vehicles are hot. Speculations have run amok about who helped the BMW thieves get away. Were there BMW employees involved? Did the security company know? Was it an insurance scam? Are U.S. Customs officials involved?

These answers might never be known. At the very least, according to Lt. Vance of the state police, it could be an opportunity for companies to reexamine their security systems.

Improving

“Many of them are very attuned to protecting their inventory,” Vance said. “It might be a good idea to look into putting in other forms of security. It doesn’t hurt to insure and review the security that is in place.”

Kent, the security expert, said technology now exists that allows for a video image to be emailed directly to police showing footage immediately preceding an alarm. Security cameras at BMW of Darien did not provide much help, police said.

“A number of car dealers have these video stations, but it hasn’t really taken off in the Northeast,” Kent said. “It’s a false alarm preventative.”

This automated security alarm protocol, or ASAP, delivers event-based video to the 911 center and the first responders, according to Keith Jentoff, president of RSI Video Technologies, who said that this technology is going to “change the game.”

“The new push towards building stronger relationships between the security industry and law enforcement is the answer,” Jentoff wrote on sdmmag.com, a website for security systems professionals.

While BMW of Darien’s insurance company would cover the $500,000 loss, the company still has the shadow of such a heinous act lingering over it. Charles Napolitano, chief operating officer at the Callari Group which owns BMW of Darien, did not respond to numerous requests for comment.

For Jentoff, rebuilding relationships between the various stakeholders is key to combating major thefts.

“The insurers recognize the value of a strong relationship between alarm companies and law enforcement and this will benefit all of the stakeholders — insurers with lower losses, law enforcement with more arrests, and the alarm industry delivering greater value to its customers,” Jentoff said.

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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