Confessions of a car hijacker

A VERY SCARY SIGHT: This is what victims of car hijackings are sometimes faced with when an order for a vehicle has been placed by a client to a network.
A VERY SCARY SIGHT: This is what victims of car hijackings are sometimes faced with when an order for a vehicle has been placed by a client to a network.

"My family knew but never discouraged me"

I'VE always wondered how I could best protect myself against being hijacked. So much so that the fear of being hijacked has forced me to carefully choose the car I want to own.

In a quest to satisfy my (sometimes unhealthy) sense of curiosity, I secured an interview with a reformed car hijacker, whose reformation came by way of a car accident that left him paralysed from the waist down.

Being wheelchair-bound had given Jack (not his real name) time to reflect on the impact his past life has had on other people.

It wasn't difficult to get an interview with Jack.

His contact arranged the interview in a surprisingly short time. All too soon the day rolled by and, to my astonishment the only thing I could think of was what to wear.

For once I opted not to wear heels, just in case I had to run!

The meeting point was in a part of town with a reputation of being a crime-infested spot.

As luck would have it, I parked in the wrong place. Three menacing- looking men stared at me in disbelief, while simultaneously reaching for their pockets.

Then Jack's mediator, Adam, appeared and hurriedly motioned me to park closer to him. And I felt it was best to comply.

I had earlier formed a profile of the former car hijacker in my mind but on meeting Jack I discovered he was not of diminutive frame and soft-spoken as I thought he'd turn out to be.

He had two cellphones, and fidgeted with them constantly. It dawned on me that both of us were nervous, though for completely different reasons.

We opted to conduct our interview while driving so as not to attract attention by being together in one place. As we ventured out I wondered if Jack was armed. Too late for that, I mused, but what if I ended up as a car hijacking statistic while trying to pick the mind of a car hijacker?

I was in an unfamiliar neighbourhood, sitting less than an arm's length from a car hijacker - reformed or not. They say old habits die hard.

I asked Jack why he used to hijack cars.

He said that the allure of quick and easy cash had been too much to resist.

He had started a life of crime when he was only 17 years old as a means to support his family. In the area he grew up in the only role models were people who committed crime.

Finding work in a white neighbourhood was an option but Jack felt that working for a "pittance" wasn't for him.

Jack had been involved in and exposed to this lifestyle for more than 20 years at the time and had been too immersed in it to have willingly dispensed with it.

Jack said many more cars were hijacked for spare parts than for resale and that it all started with a driver who is unlicensed, uninsured or simply not willing to report an accident to their insurer for fear of paying a high excess. It also involved mechanics and panelbeaters, who were not willing to incur the costs involved inf buying parts.

According to Jack the scenario is: A "boss" (person whom the panelbeater contacts for spare parts) places an "order" for a particular vehicle through the country's nationwide car hijacker network.

The stolen car, called a "parcel", is "sourced" by the network and once the "order" is fulfilled, the boss sends out a cancellation order, thereby ensuring that he does not end up with more than one parcel.

Different parcels sell for different prices and it was interesting to learn that most cars that can be stolen when stationary fetched a lower price than cars that "need" to be hijacked.

Once the parcel is in hand, it is stripped, effectively reducing it to hundreds of spare parts. One parcel can be used as parts for many similar cars, especially those that are not traceable.

Many factors play a role in the pricing of parcels, including availability, scarcity of the particular model and the risk involved.

Jack was quick to point out that different hijackers used different modus operandi and that client needs differed. But the general rule was first-come-first-paid. Not all vehicle thefts can be categorised as hijackings, Jack said. He seemed disgusted by the fact that his specialised craft was belittled by petty thieves.

He mentioned that some car thieves simply shadowed people in shopping malls and other leisure areas with the intention of stealing their jewellery, cash and bank cards.

These criminals follow the shoppers out of the car park and relieve them of their belongings, so "hijacked" cars are sometimes found abandoned not too far from the place they were stolen.

When asked if car hijackers targeted women, Jack's response was an emphatic no, but he added he was not speaking on behalf of all hijackers. He said his team had not targeted women, especially those with children since mothers were too unpredictable for their liking. Though he didn't articulate it I sensed what he was really saying was that mothers' maternal instincts often endangered a "job" and resulted in injuries or death.

Apart from mothers with children in cars, everyone else was fair game. If you happened to be driving a car that had been ordered you were a target.

I asked why car hijackers often kidnapped the drivers, and Jack's answer was rather a surprising one. If the hijackers let you go before they have located the tracking system, Jack said, the driver will have an opportunity to activate the tracker, meaning the hijackers' efforts will count for nothing.

According to Jack it took about 10 minutes to locate the tracking system in a car.

Those first 10 minutes after a vehicle has been hijacked are critical and could be the difference between life and death.

I got the distinct feeling that he meant it was at this point that most hijack victims were at risk of ending up dead.

I asked Jack how car hijackers went about finding a "parcel" and he painstakingly schooled me in the art of "scouting".

A group of youths would venture into a neighbourhood in search of their target. The actual market value of the vehicle would determine in which suburb they conducted their search, though in some cases his team would cross provincial borders to fulfil an order.

The scouts would steal a small inconspicuous vehicle, change the number plates, and drive around until they identified their target.

They would establish the driver's routine by following them for a few days.

Jack suggested that drivers should be vigilant at all times and constantly change the routes they use to and from work.

He said motorists should use their rear-view and side mirrors often when driving.

"Make a few turns here and there," he suggested. "If the car behind you makes the same turns you need to be aware that someone could be following you".

Jack said drivers who were easily distracted made for easy targets, especially those who talk on cell phones while driving.

"Rather drive to the nearest police station and if the car behind you drives past then you know you have to readjust your travel pattern."

Jack told me proudly he had a wife and children. They were aware of what he did for a living and had never discouraged him from doing it. At a minimum of R300,000 a job he could afford to send his children to private schools and did not lack for anything.

As a parting question I asked him why the community had never handed him over to the police, to which he replied that a sense of loyalty in communities was sometimes higher than the sense of civic duty, especially if the community was not at risk from criminal activities.

It came as little comfort that Jack explained that members of the police force and other authorities were part of the hijacking networks since they provided legitimate paperwork where needed.

As I watched Jack wheel himself along the dusty path, my mind set about to finding and interviewing someone who might have been a victim of a car hijacking.

* Vuyi Jabavu is a motoring and lifestyle journalist for Driving In Heels, Motoring for Women.

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