|Published: Saturday, March 15, 2003||Copyright © 2003 The Daily Herald Co., Everett, Wash.|
alleged car title scam
The salesman and customer discussed the price. An offer was made. The salesman counted the money. They signed the papers and shook hands.
The salesman thought he had just clinched another sale.
For the Washington State Patrol, however, the sale wrapped up more than three years of undercover work on an alleged organized crime ring that overcharged vehicle buyers millions of dollars and left them with salvaged vehicles worth half their purchase price.
Troopers on Friday broke up the alleged ring with the arrests of two people in Snohomish and King counties. A third suspect was arrested about a month ago, and more arrests are pending.
Authorities say the ring rebuilt wrecked cars and sold them for about twice their true value after a licensing agent "washed" the vehicles' titles to remove information that the vehicles had been totaled. One alleged member of the ring admitted having sold as many as 1,000 vehicles.
About 40 auto-theft detectives from the State Patrol, Bellevue police and the National Insurance Crime Bureau served search warrants simultaneously Friday after an undercover detective purchased a 1999 Ford Ranger pickup that the dealer failed to identify as salvaged. When the sale ended, the black-clad state troopers rushed in with guns drawn and ordered the salesman to lie face-down on the floor. He turned white and appeared shocked, investigators said.
The truck price, including tax and license, was $10,500. But the salesman told the detective he could list it in the paperwork for only $6,000, saving him about $400 in taxes. He told the detective the truck's title was clean, troopers said.
The case is expected to be prosecuted under state racketeering laws, Lt. Grant Hulteen of the State Patrol said.
Washington state ranks third in the nation in auto theft, and this investigation should help reduce that trend, patrol Chief Ronal Serpas said.
About 123 vehicles are stolen each day statewide, or one about every 11 minutes, said Cliff Chezum, a retired trooper now working as a vehicle identification specialist for the insurance crime bureau. In 1996, thieves stole about 75 vehicles each day.
Investigators likened Friday's sting to winning a gold medal. Originally started in 1999, the investigation ended up on the back burner for a while, but was revived in July. Officers still face months of work determining if stolen auto parts were used in rebuilding the vehicles, and how many "washed" vehicles were sold.
A washed title enables thieves to sell vehicles -- particularly high-end ones such as Camaros, SUVs and luxury cars -- for up to twice their value.
So far, investigators have confirmed that 130 vehicles with altered titles were sold. The owners of those vehicles will be notified and instructed on where to get more information, Hulteen said.
The problem, however, could affect thousands more people. Cars weren't just sold from those two car lots, but could have been sold privately or at other car lots or even out of state, detectives said.
"Sometimes, these cars are put together very poorly, and sometimes the air bags aren't installed," Hulteen said.
This is the first case in Washington in which an organized ring worked with the cooperation of a licensing agent, said Brad Benfield, a state Department of Licensing spokesman. The agent allegedly accepted $30 to $500 per contact to alter the vehicle titles.
Licensing officials declined to identify the woman or the agency she worked for, but said all the work generated by that agency is being monitored closely by licensing officials in Olympia.
The department this year has asked the Legislature for $309,000 to match a federal grant to purchase a national vehicle database that would track vehicles "from birth to death" and catch attempts to alter titles, Benfield said.
To avoid being sold a car with major problems, detectives urge consumers to do their own research using the car's vehicle identification number (on the dashboard) with a service such as Carfax (www.carfax.com), which tracks vehicles' histories, and to check inside the driver's door for a salvage sticker.
Reporter Cathy Logg: email@example.com