Thieves no longer need to hotwire a car to steal it. In a growing and ominous trend, criminals are using sophisticated financial fraud techniques, such as identity theft, to steal automobiles, warns the National Insurance Crime Bureau
Crooks are using stolen IDs to fraudulently lease or obtain loans to purchase new vehicles, according to the NICB, a nonprofit fighting insurance fraud and vehicle theft. After getting the vehicle, they skip out without ever making car payments. The cars are often sold to unsuspecting buyers after the Vehicle Identification Numbers have been switched.
NICB Senior Special Agent Mike Kelso, working with Brown Deer, Wisc., police, uncovered an ID theft ring in Detroit, Mich., that used stolen IDs to fraudulently lease five vehicles worth more than $300,000, which they planned to sell later. Police charged two people with conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud and aggravated identity theft.
Although investigators report a noticeable increase in this type of auto theft, there is currently no central database that quantifies these crimes. Because the new methods are legally financial fraud, stolen vehicles are not counted as auto thefts, which might help account for the steady drop in auto theft crime statistics in the past two decades.
"Trying to put a number on these kinds of thefts is a challenge," says NICB CEO Joe Wehrle. "It's comparable to a hacker stealing IDs — you don't know you're a victim until it's too late."
The NICB urges consumers to frequently check their credit reports for signs that someone else is using their identity to take out new loans.
The FBI recently broke up a West African-based car theft and identity theft ring. Two men confessed to using the stolen identities to purchase scores of vehicles valued at almost $500,000 from car dealerships in the U.S., according to the FBI
. To obtain fake identities, the ring purchased stolen credit cards and counterfeit driver's licenses from a Singapore-based website.
The vehicles were transported to Africa where they were sold on the open market.
A third man, thought to be still in Africa, ran the ring from Ghana, using stolen identities and credit cards to purchase vehicles.
"This case is notable in terms of its level of sophistication, its audacious methods and the callous disregard for victims," says U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy in a press release. "These guilty pleas are the first strike back on behalf of identity theft victims who now have to reclaim their good names — a frustrating task that can take years."
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