It was a surprisingly high-tech heist -- the thief removed a computer chip from inside the electronic key of a Toyota Land Cruiser
. He then placed the chip in the vehicle, which was parked in a dealership lot, and handed the key back to a distracted salesman, who was unaware of the ploy.
Later that night, the thief returned, jimmied the door open, pressed the Land Cruiser's start button and drove off, with the car's computer system thinking that the driver had been locked out and that the key was inside the vehicle. The next morning, the dealership -- Toyota
of Murfreesboro (Tenn.) -- was missing one $79,750 Toyota Land Cruiser. The chances of recovering the vehicle? Not good, investigators say. The car battery was likely removed to avoid GPS tracking.
The entire incident, which was part of a rash of recent similar thefts in middle Tennessee, was caught on the dealership's surveillance cameras, and investigators think the thief and his two accomplices are part of an international crime ring that ships luxury vehicles to Nigeria.
"We believe the vehicle is... taken to a port somewhere in the United States, and shipped there by freight (by boat or by truck), and shipped to Nigeria," Sgt. Kyle Evans of the Murfreesboro Police Department told local news station WSMV
. "We believe this is part of an international car-theft ring involving several people."
At least four other dealerships in the region have been targeted, and the thefts come on the heels of the May arrests of 19 suspects connected to an international car-theft ring in the New York City area. Porsche
SUVs were stolen from the streets of New York and New Jersey or through carjackings, and then shipped to the West African nations of Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Gambia and Ghana, according to reporting by the New Jersey Star-Ledger
. Authorities have also arrested people suspected of committing similar crimes in Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.
Why is West Africa a hotbed for hot luxury cars? The illegal diamond trade, drug trafficking and other organized-crime operations have created demand for these vehicles, which are not available for sale through legal channels. "It’s not a place where manufacturers are likely to set up showrooms," Ted Sherman of the Star-Ledger wrote. "[S]o the demand for black-market wheels is high."