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Car thieves are acquiring richer tastes, targeting luxury cars like Mercedes-Benzes and Range Rovers that are shipped overseas, or driven across the border.
Federal officials say hundreds of thousands of high-end vehicles are smuggled overseas everywhere by car theft rings. CNBC was given exclusive access to a warehouse containing dozens of luxury cars that were on the verge of being smuggled outside the country before they were intercepted by authorities.
"If you look around this warehouse right now, there's anywhere between $55,000 to $75,000 per vehicle and they could fetch as much as three to four times that overseas," said James T. Hayes Jr., head of the New York office of Homeland Security Investigations.
The cars, he said, are being shipped to countries such as those in West Africa—where the demand is high and the supply is low. "Containers will be loaded by the organization with stolen vehicles—what we'll often times get is four vehicles in the back and then on top they will hang them with chains and put mattresses in between," Hayes added.
Stolen vehicles are costing consumers more than $4.3 billion annually, according to National Insurance Crime Bureau estimates. Whether it's through higher prices for cars or higher prices for insurance, the auto theft boom comes with a high cost.
But authorities are having success catching the thieves before the cars are shipped. After a 2½-year investigation, federal authorities in New Jersey prosecuted one of the biggest car theft rings in the country. "We know that we recovered about 200 vehicles during the course of the investigation," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jose Almonte.
At the heart of that operation was Hope Kantete, who is now serving a more than 21-year sentence in federal lockup. Investigators say she was responsible for shipping over $2.5 million worth of stolen cars overseas.
According to authorities, by changing vehicle identification numbers and creating fraudulent titles after cars were stolen, it was nearly impossible for customs and border protection to detect her stolen cars.
Another hurdle is the volume of containers being shipped out of ports in the U.S. is staggering. "It's impossible to check every single container," said Almonte. Kantete is appealing her conviction.
—By CNBC's Erica Posse and Andrea Day