Often you will see an ad online for a used car in near-perfect condition at a very good price. But some of those ads are bogus, as the vehicle advertised has been stolen. Such crimes have become a real challenge for law enforcement.
"It is a big job, and unfortunately we have a lot of auto theft to investigate here and it can be a pretty daunting task," said John Thorne, an L.A. County sheriff's detective.
Thorne is part of a unique unit with the L.A. County sheriff's department called the Taskforce for Regional Autotheft Prevention (TRAP). He says the Internet has become the avenue of choice for thieves to sell their stolen goods.
"Some of these guys use some very elaborate techniques," explained Thorne. He notes that ads will indicate the seller is stressed and must sell quickly -- for example, they claim to be going through a divorce, or say they're being transferred to a job out of state.
Ray Plunkett of Cypress owned a beautiful 1964 Chevy Impala, but he was devastated when it was stolen. Ray put out fliers hoping someone would spot the car. Then a friend of Ray's noticed the Impala for sale on the Internet. The paint had been changed, but it was the same car.
"They contacted our task force and we set up an undercover operation," said Thorne. "We went in there as potential buyers and we were able to make the arrest and recover the stolen property."
The U.S. Secret Service tells Eyewitness News that con artists love to scam victims buying and selling cars using legitimate websites like Craigslist.org, AutoTrader.com, and eBay.com. They describe one scam where the thief poses as a member of the military who says he needs to sell the car fast.
On its website, Craigslist now posts a warning that states, "offers to ship cars are 100 percent fraudulent," and also warns consumers, "never to wire finds via Western Union or MoneyGram."
Red flags to look for when avoiding stolen cars:
- Very low price
- Rushing to sell vehicle
- Asking to wire money
- Using escrow account
- Paying with cashier's check
- No phone number
"You need to do your homework," said Plunkett. "If you're looking for a car and it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."
If you're worried about your car being stolen, always lock your car, roll up the windows, park in a well-lit area, and maintain your insurance just in case it does happen to you.