On August, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers visited two freight forwarders near Los Angeles. They were accompanied by Lou Koven, a special agent with the National Insurance Crime Bureau, and Terrill Bealey, an investigator with the California Highway Patrol's Foreign Export and Recovery Team.
They were looking for new vehicles that intelligence indicated were stolen and ready to be shipped out of the country before their loans had been paid off.
They found nearly 60 cars on the premises, where shipping agents prepare the export documents required by U.S. Customs and load the vehicles in containers to be trucked to the massive Los Angeles/Long Beach port complex.
Back in their office, Koven and Bealey ran the VINs through the insurance crime bureau, national law enforcement and CarFax databases to match against stolen-car reports and look for other clues of suspicious activity.
After checking with finance companies to verify a first-payment default, Bealey submitted stolen-vehicle reports, and Customs quickly placed holds on 23 Mercedes-Benz GLS 450 and Land Rover Range Rover SUVs, prohibiting the forwarder from moving them.
The high-end vehicles were then seized, brought to a Customs warehouse to be checked for narcotics and other contraband and finally sent to a police tow yard, where they were released to lien holders.
Customs, in announcing the recovery Oct. 31, said the vehicles had an estimated combined value of nearly $1.9 million.
It's all in a day's work for CBP's outbound enforcement team at the twin ports, where 700 to 1,200 vehicle titles are reviewed each day to ensure compliance with U.S. export laws and regulations. The agency's automated targeting system uses anomaly detection to sort through vast amounts of cargo information to flag suspicious shipments.
Demand for luxury items, including cars, over the past decade has increased because Asia has created more superwealthy individuals who are accumulating wealth at a faster pace than anywhere else.