INVESTIGATIVE

The Used Car You're Buying Might Be Stolen

A new scam is targeting used car buyers, and they’re losing thousands of dollars

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Kent Blakely from Orange County calls himself a day trader. His currency: used cars. He buys cars from people online from sites like Craigslist and then sells them at auction as fast as possible. 

But Blakeley recently fell victim to a scam that he said led to police showing up at his door with guns drawn: he accidentally bought a stolen car as a result of vehicle title fraud.

Blakely says he makes about $500 per car that he sells. So a few months back, when he found a 2019 Mercedes on Craigslist with a $32,000 price tag, he saw dollar signs. 

“It was cheap. Our profit margin was going to be $4,000 to $5,000 for the car,” he said.

When Blakely met the seller, he confirmed that the seller’s driver’s license matched the name on the title. He also checked that the title itself was authentic, by looking for watermarks. 

“There are three or four bears on the watermark. That’s one of the telltale signs you have a legitimate California title,” he said.

Feeling confident, Blakely bought the car. But the day before he was headed to auction to sell it, he said law enforcement showed up at his home. 

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“Orange County’s Auto Theft Task Force was at my house, the garage door was open, and they had their guns pointed at me,” he said.

Blakely had bought a stolen car. 

The thief had rented the Mercedes through the car sharing website Turo, with the sole intent to act as its owner and sell it. 

Lisa Haddon is the real owner of the car, and she got suspicious when it wasn’t returned on time. 

“I texted him and said, ‘Hey dude, are you going to return the car?’ And no response,” she said.

Haddon eventually reported it stolen. 

“I thought he was going to bring it back. Never once did I think it would not be returned,” she said. 

Turo said thefts are extremely rare and that it collaborates with law enforcement to safeguard its community. 

Haddon did get her car back, but Blakely was out $32,000.

The crook got away. 

Fraud expert Justin Davis said this scam likely all went down because the thief got his hands on a real blank car title from the Department of Motor Vehicles and plugged in his name as the owner of the car. Davis said it’s happening in other states, too.

“So it’s a blank title. So it’s physically stolen from a DMV. Or it’s insider threats, where it’s somebody on the inside that will give them access to blank titles,” he said. 

The I-Team asked the DMV for an interview, but they declined. They said in an email that they take fraud claims seriously but can’t provide information about any potential ongoing investigations regarding title fraud. 

As for Blakely, this isn’t an isolated case. Thieves have since tried to sell him more stolen cars. He wants to warn other car buyers that if it happened to him, it could happen to anyone. 

“Thirty years and I’ve never heard of a real paper fake title,” he said. 

Tips for Buying a Used Car:

  • Before meeting the seller, ask to see a picture of their driver’s license and the vehicle identification number. Many times, crooks don’t like to give up this information for fear of being caught. 
  • Run a Carfax report. This gives the date the title was last issued, and it should match the date on the title.
  • The best option is to meet the seller at a AAA office and transfer the title there. AAA will verify that the real owner of the car matches the name on the title.
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