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Many stolen cars shipped before they can be found

Itschak Friedman's new Mitsubishi Montero was stolen from Miami International Airport, hidden in a cargo container and delivered to the Port of Miami bound for Colombia when it was discovered by a suspicious inspector.

Most victims of such car thefts aren't as fortunate _ the vast majority of stolen cars are never recovered.

Smuggled through U.S. ports and over borders to other continents, they are difficult to trace, impossible or too costly to reclaim and very lucrative to sell.

"Take a $35,000 Lexus," said Sgt. Larry Duff, whose Broward County Auto Theft Task Force already recovered 19 stolen cars destined for Jamaica, the Bahamas and Colombia this month. "In some South American countries that car will bring in $65,000. So you steal it, pay $2,000 to ship it and the rest is money in your pocket. Even if you pay the import duties, you're ahead."

Car owners who live anywhere near ports or borders are more likely to lose their cars to overseas buyers than motorists in the Midwest.

Yet no area is immune.

Rental cars snatched from Orlando International Airport have been traced to China and Germany. A van dragged from Quality Buick's lot in Casselberry around Christmas was recovered at Port Canaveral in March, a day before it would have been loaded on a freighter headed to Costa Rica.

Buyers _ some crooked, some unwitting _ have different favorites in different countries. Australians like Porsches. Saudi Arabians favor Mercedes and Lexuses. Dominicans and Colombians prefer Nissan Pathfinders and other four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Just how much money is at stake and how many cars are involved is anybody's guess. The U.S. Customs Service has estimated that 200,000 of the 1.5-million vehicles reported stolen in the United States annually wind up overseas, but many law enforcement and insurance experts think that number is understated.

"It's a mythical figure," Bob Perito, director of the U.S. State Department's Office of International Criminal Justice told the Orlando Sentinel. "The anecdotal evidence would suggest that this is a much larger problem than 200,000 cars."

So large that Perito is negotiating treaties with seven Central American countries to adopt procedures for returning recovered stolen vehicles.

In one country alone, he said, an estimated one of every three cars on the road is stolen from the United States. He blames duties that can double the price of cars legitimately imported to other nations for contributing to the export problem.

"Tariffs are sometimes one or two times the value of the vehicle, so you can really cut the price if you steal it," he said. "If you bring it in without paying the duties, you really make a killing."

Detectives in Dade County, which led the state with 40,734 car thefts last year, are trying to make a dent in the export problem, too. They are proposing an ordinance that would require companies that rent cargo containers to copy photo IDs of anyone who orders one.

"Right now, you can pick up the phone anywhere and have a container delivered," said Sgt. Tom Gross, of Metro-Dade's Auto Theft Task Force. "You need more ID to sell a shopping cart full of aluminum cans than you do to ship $100,000 worth of cars. It won't solve the problem, but at least we'll have a face on record."

Metro Detective Les Cravens and Customs agent Terry Manweiler, both veterans on Dade's auto theft task force, are pros at following paper trails. They get plenty of practice. The trail usually begins with a tip from an informant, a hunch or blind luck.

The latter recently led the investigative duo to Friedman's Montero, and three other cars that would have been shipped to Colombia hours later.

It was a "random" day for Customs, a day inspectors decided they would search all cargo headed to Colombia. With 629,000 containers coming through the Port of Miami every year, Customs has no choice but to pick and choose.

Opening the back of one 40-foot container, Inspector Brian Vicente saw a wall of old tires. He checked the manifest. It listed tires as the contents, but trained to be skeptical, Vicente banged on the side. His suspicions grew. The container rang hollow, so he arranged a more thorough search, unloading 300 tires to find Friedman's Montero and a shiny, new black BMW.