New Jersey officials have feared for months that the 22% increase in vehicle thefts in the state in 2021, representing some 14,000-plus stolen cars, could balloon to a jump of nearly 50% this year.

Often, those cars are taken whole or in parts to the Port of New York and New Jersey, where they are exported to Africa and countries on other continents with proceeds going to fund drug trafficking, gang activity, or terrorism.

Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-NJ, 5th, said last week that the United States must crack down on the trend, and is calling for the establishment of a national auto theft task force to investigate the troubling issue.

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New Jersey already has a state-based task force of its own.

"If we can cut off the head of the snake, domestically and internationally, we believe that will help, obviously, stop the huge surge in theft and wherever these dollars, when they sell these vehicles, are going," Gottheimer said. "You sort of work the problem from the bottom up, figure out who's stealing these cars, get to the next level up and the next level up, and that's how often they break these rings."

Part of the problem with these cases is that it has been difficult to follow the money trail, so Gottheimer is recommending that the federal Justice and Treasury departments work with the FBI on a full-scale probe.

Intercepting the cars before they leave the country, in whatever physical state they are in, is another key component and will also involve multiple jurisdictions.

"We've asked the Department of Homeland Security, and Customs and Border Protection, and other DHS agencies that are at the ports and responsible for the ports to be much more aggressive," Gottheimer said.

The task force would not require enabling legislation, but would likely need backing from the Biden administration to further involve the U.S. Attorney's Office.

"I've asked the administration to create that, to coordinate our federal, state, and local law enforcement efforts to combat these interstate, international carjacking and auto theft issues," Gottheimer said.

In the interim, Gottheimer is passing along a message from local law enforcement to residents to do whatever they can to head off these carjackings and thefts at home.

And more often than not, that simply means to remember to lock your vehicles.

Patrick Lavery is a reporter and anchor for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at patrick.lavery@townsquaremedia.com

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