FAIRFIELD (CBS13) — You’ve heard of people flipping houses, but how about cars?
The practice known as curbstoning is illegal without a dealers license, according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles, but it’s happening all across the state.
Consumers have ended up buyers cars with odometers rolled back — and in some cases with vehicles too dangerous to drive.
Beale AFB Airman Michael Berman searched for a safe car, ahead of the birth of his 4-month-old daughter. He found a 1997 Honda Accord advertised on Craigslist with 157,000 miles on it.
“I tried looking under the car to see if there was any frame damage,” he said.
Berman said the seller described himself as a family man and said the vehicle had a clean title.
Berman later realized almost everything he was told was a lie.
The clean title he was given was counterfeit, and this 1997 Accord is actually a 1994 Accord, deemed salvaged last year.
State records show the odometer had been rolled back at least 60,000 miles.
“You feel like you just got scammed,” he said.
He later realized the same person who sold him the car, had several cars for sale online. He was just the latest victim of an illegal car dealer flipping cars.“We’ve seen some of these vehicles where they’ve taken two separate vehicles, welded them together, cosmetically painted the vechile and sold it,” said Commander Mary Bienko of the DMV.
A consumer would have no idea the car was barely pieced back together and could possibly no longer have airbags. Bienko said a good portion of these vehicles should not be on the road.
During a sting on a Saturday in April, Call Kurtis rode along with the DMV’s undercover team as they cracked down on illegal car flippers.
In one parking lot, we found more than a dozen cars with for-sale signs in the window. Some signs listed the same phone numbers, which Bienko said is a clue the seller may be an illegal dealer.
After calling the numbers, several of DMV’s plain-clothed investigators flooded the lot and waited to see who would show up.
“The gentleman in the cowboy hat leaning against the car is more than likely a lookout,” Bienko said.
“They’ll let sellers know there’s law enforcement in the area,” she said.
But even with possible lookouts, the seller arrived.
After he agreed on a price with the undercover investigator.
“Thumbs up, a buy has been completed,” Bienko said.
“How many cars in this lot are yours today,” Ming asked the seller, who identified himself as Enrique Garcia.
“Two,” he replied.
He admitted he flips cars.
Investigators said he bought one car for $600, and planned to sell it for $2,000.
“How long have you been doing this?” Ming asked.
“Like three years maybe,” he said.
“Do you work, do you have another job?” Ming asked.
“No,” Garcia said.
Garcia’s back seat was filled with the same brightly-colored poster boards he use for his for-sale signs.
“You know you’re breaking the law?” Ming asked.
“No, I didn’t know that,” Garcia said. “I know now.”
Nearby, another seller tried to sell investigators a Cadillac.
“I didn’t know it was a crime up until today,” he told Ming.
“Have you ever sold cars this way before?” Ming asked.
“No,” the seller said.
“You get caught the first time?” Ming said.
“Yes, sir,” the seller said.
“That’s pretty bad luck,” Ming said.
Investigators said he didn’t have a driver’s license.
The car he drove to the lot hadn’t been registered since 2012, but had a 2014 sticker on the plate. In the back seat investigators found a dashboard control panel Bienko said could be tied to odometer fraud.
“Whose car is that?” Ming asked, pointing to the car investigators were inspecting.
“Not mine,” he said.
The car with illegal tags was towed.
After being cited, the seller was forced to walk home — with a court date with a judge.
One doesn’t have to look far in the same shopping center parking lot to learn why you may not want to buy some of the vehicles for sale.
“There’s the handle,” Bienko says as she tries to open one car door and the entire handle detaches and falls off the car.
“Comes right off,” she said.
It’s something a buyer may not realize until they’re down the road and the seller is long gone.
“I think it’s a shame,” Bienko said. “It’s victimzing people who really can’t afford it.”
During the one day statewide DMV sting undercover officers issued 93 citations gave 68 warnings, impounded 109 vehicles and arrested four individuals on outstanding warrants.
The DMV is investigating Berman’s case.
“I’d never bought a car before,” he said.
After having a professional inspect it, he learned his car did not have any frame damage and is safe to carry his precious newborn.
“So I do feel pretty lucky,” he said.
The insurance company apparently totalled out the car last year after it was stolen.
It was then sold at auction, before the seller sold it to Berman. It cost Berman a couple hundred bucks to get the registration all straightened out.
By the way, investigators say sometimes sellers are actually selling stolen cars. Imagine buying a car, only to have it towed when police tell you it’s a stolen vehicle.
Before Buying a Used Car
If you find a car for sale online, Google the phone number. If you see multiple listings with the same phone number, that’s a sign you may be dealing with an illegal car flipper.
If you’re in a parking lot, check to see if there are other cars nearby with the same phone number.
Read the title carefully and feel the paper for authenticity before handing over any money. Spelling errors are a red flag the document may be counterfeit.
Don’t buy a used car until a mechanic checks it out. It may cost you between $50 and $150, but it could save you a lot of money and possibly even your life.
DMV Information On Curbstoning
· Curbstoning is the repeated, unlicensed “flipping” of used cars for profit.
· Curbstoners are people who actively and regularly buy and sell vehicles without a license, proper permits or a legally established place of business and who, many times, represent themselves as private sellers in order to attract buyers.
Nuisance: Curbstoners often turn high traffic areas into instant parking lots, lining up cars at gas stations, supermarkets, convenience stores, on private property or even the side of the road. They deprive shoppers of places to park and the inconvenience and unsightliness drives away business.
Fraud: Consumers can easily become victims of fraud involving issues like Odometer Tampering, Undisclosed Frame Damage or Salvage Rebuilt Vehicles, Faulty Safety Devices, Mechanics or Promissory Liens and other problems that may not be truthfully disclosed at the time of sale. A consumer has no recourse!
Criminal: The most common crime committed by Curbstoners is Tax Fraud. When an unsuspecting customer buys a car, the curbstoner will leave the title blank or “open.” Without the curbstoner’s name on the document, they are able to pocket the money (usually cash) and avoid paying State Sales Tax, Federal Income Tax and any other declarations that are legally required.
· Be suspicious of cars and vehicles suddenly parked in undesignated areas.
· Monitor free advertising sites, like Craigslist, for cases in which the same contact phone number appears on various private-party listings.
· Compare contact information on ‘For Sale’ signs to see if it is the same.
· Verify the name on the Certificate of Ownership (title) matches the seller’s name.
· Steer away from sellers who accept only cash and refuse checks or money orders.
· A curbstoner will not let you have the vehicle independently inspected or provide maintenance records that match the car.
· A curbstoner will not allow you to conduct a CarFax report because it will detail if the vehicle was sold at auction.