As car thefts spike, many thieves slip through U.S. border unchecked

You head to your car in the morning, as you do every day. But today, you're horrified to discover it isn't where you parked it the night before. It's a heart-sinking moment Americans across the country wake up to as cases of car thefts soar.

More than one million cars were stolen in 2022, the highest number since 2008, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), the insurance industry's association that tracks annual vehicle thefts.

That's about two vehicles stolen every minute.

The trend impacts consumers whether their car was stolen or not.

"Increased crime rates are going to translate to [paying] a higher premium for your vehicle," said NICB President and CEO David Glawe.

Thousands of these stolen vehicles are being smuggled out of the country, in some cases in broad daylight, right past U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials at the country's biggest ports of entry, a CBS News investigation found.

Last year, license plate readers installed at checkpoints in California, Arizona and Texas recorded 2,829 stolen vehicles driven into Mexico, according to the California Highway Patrol.

However, a CBP spokesperson told CBS News just 144 stolen cars were seized on their way into Mexico that same year.

One point of departure is the Port of Newark, New Jersey, where CBP Officer Dean Panzarino and his team are focused on finding stolen cars hidden among the tens of thousands of 20-foot shipping containers that pass through the port every day.

"This year, 2023, is probably the busiest I've seen," said Panzarino.

He relies on years of experience, and his gut, to identify containers that may hold a stolen vehicle.

"We don't have X-ray eyes. We can't X-ray all of them."

Once he reviews paperwork and goes through a process of elimination, his team takes a closer look at containers that arouse suspicion and may require further scrutiny and inspection.

"We're contracted with the government to take the containers, strip the containers, take everything out of them before we can do our exams," said Panzarino.

On the Tuesday morning CBS News visited, Panzarino hit the jackpot: a container that held a Maserati, BMW and Ford SUV – all stolen. Several mattresses were used as padding around the vehicles to keep them from being damaged in transit.

"This is a nice hit," he said.

While Panzarino acknowledges many stolen cars get past him, he says today feels like a win.

"When we open up [a container] like we did today, it was perfect timing," he said. "Three stolen cars. The day's made right now."

Most of the stolen cars seized at the Port of Newark are luxury vehicles. The ones seized on this day were headed to West Africa, a common destination, according to Panzarino. He says many are often headed to the Dominican Republic.

The NICB says its foreign operations unit repatriated more than 2,000 stolen vehicles that had been trafficked to foreign countries in 2022.

It's part of an ongoing international effort to fight this fast-growing crime.

Last year, law enforcement agencies from 77 countries, with assistance from Interpol, took part in Operation Carback, which resulted in the seizure of 1,121 stolen cars and 64 motorcycles, and the arrest or detention of 222 suspected stolen vehicle traffickers. Interpol maintains a stolen motor vehicle database to fight international vehicle theft and trafficking. In 2020, the database identified nearly a quarter million stolen vehicles.

Cybersecurity consultant Chris Clark's Range Rover was stolen outside his Los Angeles apartment building in the middle of the night in 2020. He was able to locate it using GPS tracking technology the next morning.

"My car was located in Tijuana, specifically in their red-light district," Clark said.

Clark called Repo Mexico, a company that usually specializes in repossessing vehicles from owners who are late on loan payments.

"They agreed that they would get eyes on the vehicle and, if they could, they would procure the local police to block it in until I came down across the border to repossess it myself."

By the time Clark made his way to Tijuana that night, Mexican police had detained the suspected thief in handcuffs. The repo company owners told him he'd been trying to sell the late-model luxury SUV on the street for $5,000.

When Clark approached the suspect, the young man apologized to him.

"He was probably asking himself, like, 'How the hell has this guy tracked me down within 24 hours to Mexico with his vehicle and had me arrested over here?'"

Ironically, Clark says, it was easier for the thief to get his vehicle across the border into Mexico than it was for him to drive it back home. When he tried to go through the checkpoint at the San Ysidro Port of Entry, his Range Rover was flagged as stolen.

"I told the [officer] what had happened, and he didn't believe me. So, I was initially arrested."

He was detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection for about five hours before the situation was untangled and he was allowed to leave.

"It was an interesting, quick weekend trip to Mexico," Clark said, laughing.

While Clark thinks the thief who took his car was part of a small operation, the U.S. government is concerned about car thefts in the U.S. that are tied to Mexican cartels.

"Just like weapons. The cartels are constantly looking for vehicles that can be used to be militarized in Mexico," said Mark Lippa, an assistant special agent in charge with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the principal investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security.

Lippa's team closed out a three-year operation that shut down a sophisticated theft ring that smuggled cars out of Texas to service the cartels.

He says the leader of the ring operated out of Mexico.

"He was actually an El Salvadorian national who had been previously deported from the United States," said Lippa. "He had cartel connections. His wife [was formerly married to] a high-ranking cartel member."

The ring's leader would dispatch scouts to neighborhoods in the Houston area in search of the kind of cars cartels wanted.

"Four-wheel drive vehicles, vehicles that have high clearance like pickup trucks or SUVs," said Lippa. "They're also looking at things like the carrying capacity and the payload of those vehicles because they're going to be transporting cartel soldiers."

Lippa says the cartels use some vehicles stolen in the U.S. for battle with rivals and the Mexican military.

"We've seen them used in Mexican operations like dropping road spikes or what they call cow traps on the roads to be able to quickly pop or deflate the tires of any pursuing law enforcement that may be coming after them," Lippa said.

In the HSI operation Lippa oversaw, investigators observed the theft ring conspiring with employees at local car dealerships, who provided them with vehicle identification information to cut new keys. The scouts used the keys to access more than 600 cars in the middle of the night, driving them to Mexico before owners could wake up to report their vehicles stolen.

Those cars would have passed through U.S. border checkpoints without notice. But questions remain about the thousands of vehicles that are reported stolen and identified by license plate readers as they're driven through the same checkpoints, in real time, as they cross into Mexico.

In an email, a CBP spokesperson told CBS News the agency "routinely conducts periodic or targeted departure/outbound examinations in order to check traveler compliance of documentary and other regulatory requirements. CBP works to identify and stop potentially stolen vehicles when identified." But they won't pursue stolen cars into Mexico because of jurisdictional limitations.

Back in New Jersey, CBP officer Dean Panzarino is finding some success at the Port of Newark, seizing 288 stolen vehicles from shipping containers bound for foreign destinations since October. But considering the millions of containers that set sail from the port every year, his team can only do so much.

"When I leave here at night, in my mind, I got the stolen cars, and nothing got past me," said Panzarino. "I know that ain't true but that's how I feel."

FBI TRUE Season 3 | Paramount+ Trailer

The politics of Trump's federal arraignment, from both sides of the aisle

Younger generations fueling astrology boom