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The ‘vehicle vultures’ terrorising residential streets and city car parks as demand for parts surges

In Europe
June 09, 2024

“It was like some sick joke,” said a Midlands father, thinking back to the third time his car was stripped for parts in full view of his home.

On the first two occasions, thieves had pulled off the bonnet, lights and front bumper of his Toyota Yaris, parked up on the street in leafy Harborne, Birmingham.

Told the so-called “car cannibals” were after external parts from budget cars, the man, in his 50s, upgraded.

But within a week of parking his new £23,000 Kia Niro in the same spot, that too was targeted – although this time the thieves fled when disturbed by a neighbour.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said the man, who does not want to be named for fear of reprisals.

“It was like someone was watching me. It made me feel unsafe, living in my area, and even question having another car.”

He now pays to park his vehicle off-road, while coughing up £1,200 more on his insurance premium.

Criminals stripped the front of Chris Pugh’s Vauxhall Corsa after he parked it in a residential cul-de-sac to watch Birmingham City (Chris Pugh)

Criminals stripped the front of Chris Pugh’s Vauxhall Corsa after he parked it in a residential cul-de-sac to watch Birmingham City (Chris Pugh)

Last year, the BBC reported on a spate of incidents across Birmingham, with nine in Digbeth in one month alone, while others occurred in a city centre car park.

Earlier this year, Birmingham City Football Club was forced to alert supporters after fans’ vehicles were hit while they watched their team.

Among them was Chris Pugh, who was landed with an £1,800 insurance excess bill after the bumper and bonnet were nicked from his Vauxhall Corsa.

His insurance company wrote off his £13,000 vehicle, and he has since upgraded to a Vauxhall Crossland. His insurance premium has nearly trebled.

”It hits you hard and you feel personally targeted,” the 35-year-old told The Independent. “It puts you out of pocket and inconvenience. We will never leave the car in the city centre again.”

Classified as “car stripping”, the offence involves ripping off external parts from cars parked in city centres, outside homes and even at hospitals, sometimes in broad daylight.

It can take just a few minutes for the thieves, who sell their haul online or to backstreet garages.

Chris Pugh was left having to pay a £1,800 insurance excess after his car was targeted in Birmingham (Chris Pugh)

Chris Pugh was left having to pay a £1,800 insurance excess after his car was targeted in Birmingham (Chris Pugh)

Insurance experts, including Henry Topham, managing director for UK retail at Allianz Insurance, told The Independent the crime is being fuelled by a shortage of car parts and high prices. The average cost of a fire and theft claim rose by 34 per cent between 2022 and 2023.

While cars have traditionally been stolen whole, Detective Superintendent Jim Munro, from West Midlands Police, told said better policing intelligence on “chop shops” led to offenders stripping vehicles in public to reduce the risk of being caught.

The officer, who leads a specialised vehicle crime operation as part of a new neighbourhood team, said the Covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine were factors in the shortage of parts, with many manufactured in eastern Europe.

“We see all types of vehicle get stolen and get stripped, as requirements dictate,” said Det Supt Munro, who added that the criminals were “savvy”, researching the parts in demand.

The force is raising crime awareness among owners of targeted vehicles, as well as talking to Birmingham-based manufacturers about security measures.

Det Supt Munro said there has been success in catching the suspected criminals. In one raid on a chop shop earlier this year, officers arrested a 45-year-old over multiple car stripping offences. He faces three charges of theft from a motor vehicle and is due to stand trial in July.

West Midlands Police say they have had success arresting and charging suspected criminals linked to car stripping. Last month they detained a 45-year-old following a raise on a garage. (West Midlands Police)

West Midlands Police say they have had success arresting and charging suspected criminals linked to car stripping. Last month they detained a 45-year-old following a raise on a garage. (West Midlands Police)

The force says there were almost 4,000 fewer victims of vehicle crime over the past year in the region, compared to the year before – down 12 per cent.

But specific data on car stripping incidents is not available as it comes under the umbrella “theft from a vehicle”. The latest national crime survey data suggests one in five such incidents now involves exterior fittings being taken.

Of 145,000 recorded offences of theft from a motor vehicle in England and Wales between April and December 2023, just 1.2 per cent resulted in a charge or summons, according to Home Office figures. In the West Midlands, the rate was slightly better, at 1.8 per cent.

Det Supt Munro said: “We are assisted by the public – CCTV and door bell cameras – and what we are doing in the West Midlands; there are officers engaged in investigating this type of crime, they understand the trend, they know people who we believe to be responsible… and we are able to use that information to help shape our policing activity to give the best possible response to our communities.”

Detective Superintendent Jim Munro says work is being done to raise awareness in the communities to tackle the crime (West Midlands Police)

Detective Superintendent Jim Munro says work is being done to raise awareness in the communities to tackle the crime (West Midlands Police)

However, more needs to be done to support police in areas like Birmingham, says Edgbaston MP Preet Gill.

A Labour candidate for the 4 July election, she says her party’s pledge to put 13,000 extra neighbourhood police and PCSOs on the beat will help forces tackle car stripping.

“It is impacting people’s everyday lives and there is frustration over it continuing to happen,” she said.

Independent car dealers have also been targeted, with traders waking up to find vehicles on their forecourt damaged.

Umesh Samani, chairman of the Independent Motor Dealers Association, saidhe has heard of stolen headlights being sold on websites such as eBay for up to £2,500, with some repurposed to growing cannabis plants.

He said: “The reality of the situation is that most of these are committed by organised criminals, the gangs work at such speeds to dismantle cars within a very short time especially when vehicles are parked in vulnerable areas.”

RAC spokesperson Simon Williams said: “It’s sad that ‘vehicle vultures’ are increasingly targeting public car parks, stripping cars of valuable parts to sell for a quick buck.”

The association urges motorists to use car parks under the Park Mark scheme accredited by police for security, and to leave vehicles near CCTV cameras.

The Home Office said it is working with the National Police Chiefs’ Council to offer “enhanced intelligence capability” to target the crimes, adding that former policing minister Chris Philp met with West Midlands Police in May to discuss vehicle crime.

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