The vast majority of drivers get to park a vehicle in their driveway in return for signing over a few hundred dollars a month. Not everyone is so lucky. Recently, a number of buyers who had purchased in Florida and Illinois were informed that not only were the vehicles that they thought they had purchased legitimately were in fact stolen, but that they were going to be seized and returned to their rightful owners. Those payments, however? They'll have to keep making them.
This nightmare scenario is the result of a recent FBI sting operation which took down an elaborate car theft ring that has been in operation in the United States and Mexico for the past 20 years. Conservative estimates place the total value of the stolen cars that have been sold at $25 million, with more than 1000 automobiles and trucks having been victimized by the ring in Florida alone. The criminal group used a sophisticated system which cloned legally registered automobiles, using their license plates and VIN numbers to legitimize stolen vehicles before they were sold.
The majority of the vehicle owners affected by the theft ring have little recourse when it comes to getting out from under their bank loans. Some have joined their banks in legal action against the original sellers of the automobile, while others are exploring their credit options with the bank and private legal counsel.
How can you, as a , avoid falling prey to such elaborate criminal schemes? To begin with, it helps to limit the scope of your shopping to backed by a dealership with a solid reputation. Most manufacturers offer programs that not only validate that a vehicle has a clear title but also provide a warranty and extensive inspection process that can help with peace of mind regarding the condition of the automobile.
If you do choose to look for a used car outside the auspices of a certified program, then it pays to get a vehicle history, not only from the current owner of the vehicle (receipts for maintenance, original bill of sale), but also from national databases and your state's DMV. A new program instituted to fight this type of fraud, called the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS), links the databases used by individual DMV's and allows for easier sharing of vehicle history information.
Finally, common sense is often a very good barometer when it comes to sniffing out automotive fraud. If a deal seems too good to be true, 90% of the time it usually is. It's far better to be vigilant and prudent when buying than to risk making monthly payments on an empty parking space for the next 5 years.