Police have a warning for consumers who subleased or picked up loan payments on a new car in recent months: They may be driving a stolen automobile.
Detectives estimate that as many as 30 new cars have been stolen from six dealerships in Bellflower, West Covina and the South Bay since November by con artists pretending to be credit-worthy customers.
Using information stolen from strangers with good credit ratings, the thieves have financed the cars, driven them away and then pawned off the loan or lease payments on unsuspecting consumers who handed over cash down payments, according to Inglewood Detective Paul Harvey.
The complex scheme can create a number of victims--the dealership, if the consumer fails to make payments and the bank demands repayment; the bank, if the lending contract does not require the dealer to return the money; the unsuspecting stranger, whose good credit rating can be ruined, and the buyer, who cannot register the car that he believes he has purchased.
Buyers have told police that they bought the cars through people who said they were “car finders” or “credit repair” specialists who could give them creative financing on the purchase.
In each case being investigated by detectives, the consumer failed to keep up with the payments, triggering unsuccessful efforts to repossess the car from the person whose credit information was used to purchase it.
“We don’t usually publicize something like this at this stage, but we need to let people know that they could be victimized by this,” Harvey said. “And if people think that they have been, they should come forward to tell us. . . . It’s better to lose a car and a couple thousand dollars than to go to jail.”
One woman who handed over a $500 fee to sublease a new car was arrested by the Gardena Police Department about two weeks ago when a routine check of her car’s license plates indicated that the car had been stolen.
Police released her without charges after several hours, but the car was returned to the dealership from which it was stolen.
“She didn’t intend to defraud anybody,” Harvey said. “I just don’t think she was aware that you can’t take over a motor vehicle sales contract under California law. You can’t do it.”
Harvey said the thefts have come in two waves. Nineteen cars were taken between late November and the end of January, and as many as 11 have been taken this month.
The thieves have focused their efforts on 1991 Toyota Previas, 4-Runners, Supras and Camrys, 1991 Acuras and 1991 Volvos from car dealerships in Inglewood, Torrance, Gardena, Hawthorne, Bellflower and West Covina.
In several cases, credit information may have been stolen from legitimate applications submitted by potential customers who ultimately decided not to buy a car.
In one case that detectives are investigating, information from an application that a man submitted at one dealership was used for a theft from another dealership several miles away.
“The true people whose credit is being used range from Bakersfield to San Diego,” Harvey said, noting that most of them have no idea that their names were used to buy a car.