Team 6 Investigators discovered cars being dumped in canals may leave car buyers vulnerable to purchasing stolen vehicles with altered identification numbers, which may later be seized by police. Ralph Ortega says he was one of those buyers. Meanwhile, police divers Lupo Jimenez and Scott Welhaf, along with Tony Fernandez talk about the phenomenon with NBC 6's Willard Shepard.
Insurance investigators say cars are being dumped into South Florida canals in an effort to rip off insurance companies. And Team 6 Investigators discovered the practice may leave car buyers vulnerable to purchasing stolen vehicles with altered identification numbers, which may later be seized by police.
Recently, Miami-Dade Police divers Lupo Jimenez and Scott Welhaf worked to get a car out of a canal near Krome Ave. A tire stuck out from the car, which was wedged upside down in the mud, under 15 feet of murky water.
“It looks like a newer model Scion, and it’s been in the water a little bit,” Jimenez said.
As the car came out, it flipped over and police got a better look at the black four-door Toyota Scion.
“We spend a lot of time in the Everglades. That seems to be the most popular location for some of these activities,” Jimenez said “We submerged with county divers to see a silver Nissan not far from the Toyota.”
Raul Ortega, from Hialeah, bought a truck through a print advertisement. He had what appeared to be a legitimate title, sales slip, and advertisement for it, but the car turned out to be stolen. It’s VIN number, or identification number, had been removed and replaced with another.
“I freak out. It doesn’t even pass through my mind that I have a stolen vehicle and that I was driving it for almost four years,” he said.
Turns out his VIN came off of a similar truck that had been sent to a watery grave.
Police confiscated his truck, and he lost $4,500.
“I would assume that the insurance company would have paid me for it. That’s why I pay insurance, right? But it didn’t happen because they said it wasn’t the truck that they were insuring, it was the truck that was in the canal.” Ortega stated.
Back at the canal near Krome, the had its VIN number intact. Once the car was on dry land, the insurance investigators took over.
“They’re run the VIN number. “VINS are what identify cars,” said Tony Fernandez, the investigator with the National Crime Insurance Bureau.
Fernandez checked out the letters and numbers located on the front windshield of the Toyota Scion coming out of the canal.
Authorities said cars have been dumped by people looking to rip off insurance companies, and then the cars were reported stolen.
Fernandez said dumping cars allows fraudsters to fool people like Ortega.
Fernandez added that when the Scion gets to the junk yard, it can be purchased for about $200, the value of the scrap metal. But what the fraudsters are really looking for sometimes is just the VIN number, he said.
“The subjects will pick up the VIN number in that particular vehicle, and they will find one vehicle that matches that car that’s out on the road, and they’ll steal that car. And they’ll put that VIN number in that particular vehicle. They’ll use the salvaged vin into the stolen car,” he said.
The Kelley Blue Book value for a similar 2008 Black Scion would be about $13,000. Fernandez said a stolen vehicle sold to an unknowing buyer brings a massive profit for the fraudsters on their $200 investment. The state will eventually catch the fraud, but it will be too late for the buyer, he said.
“They can get away with that for a long time. They can use the title _ put a title on it _ the registration—registered here in the state of Florida and it might be months before the police come across it finding it or if they find it,” Fernandez said.
Police divers say there’s a car dumped on average every other day. Jimenez estimates his team of four divers has pulled out 200 cars over the last year.
“Now what we are starting to see is the newer cars coming in,” Jimenez said.
The dumping insurance also results in higher rates for all drivers. Insurance companies will pay the owner of the vehicles, like the Scion, for the loss, whether or not it’s intentional.
“You may have paid this person whatever money they are asking for and down the road the police is going to come in and say that car is stolen and take it away from you and you are going to be out whatever money you paid for it,” Jimenez said.
Fernandez said car potential car buyers can protect themselves by taking the vehicle to the local police before purchasing or going to the National Crime Insurance Bureau website and entering the VIN number.