College student loses $20,000 in VIN cloning scam

BALTIMORE (WMAR) - Anthony Callegari, 22, was looking to buy a car as a college graduation and present to himself. He ended up shelling out $20,000 for a 2017 Ford F-150 he found on the mobile marketplace OfferUp.

“[The seller] showed me the title, title seemed perfectly clear. VIN came back clean,” said Callegari.

He took it to the DMV to change over the title and was informed the car didn't belong to him or the guy who sold it to him. 

“They told me the title was fake. At that point I tried to contact the guy, he disconnected his phone already,” Callegari said.

The police were called and investigators discovered the car was stolen.

It was reported stolen in February. Insurance paid the claim, so technically, the car belongs to them. The police seized the truck leaving Callegari with no car and no money.

“They will locate a similar make and model in another state, copy down the VIN number, and they make a phony VIN plate and put it in the vehicle they're trying to sell,” said Roger Morris with the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB).

Morris has seen this scam before. The VIN on the dash was for a similar make and model in California. Callegari bought his car in Florida.

“So, when you run that VIN it's a legitimate VIN, they think that everything's good, but in fact, it's not the VIN number for that vehicle,” said Morris.

NICB investigators found three other VIN plates pasted below the top VIN and a GPS tracker in the glove box.

“Once they sold the truck, they would go and locate it again with a GPS, steal it again and then next thing you know, it'd be up for sale again,” said Morris. 

Callegari was potentially the fourth victim in the scheme and there could be other buyers who haven't caught on just yet.

“Assuming they get any kind of title that passes security, they may have that vehicle and think everything's fine,” said Morris.

Morris added that OfferUp is working with investigators to find the seller.

In Maryland, used vehicles must undergo a safety inspection before they can be registered with the MVA. The title and VIN should be verified during inspection and by officials before putting any money down.

The NICB and Carfax also offer free VIN lookup tools as well as vehicle history reports.

And if you're looking to buy a car from someone advertising online, meet in a highly-public place like a police station.

Watch for Flooded Cars

When buying a used car, you'll want to research its history. Flooded cars from last year's hurricanes and the recent Ellicott City flooding could make their way back into the marketplace.

Carfax estimates more than 325,000 previously flooded cars are back in use.

Water can have damaging effects on a car's safety mechanisms, mechanical and electrical systems.

Most flooded vehicles are sent to an auto recycler but others may be cleaned up and sold, some by auto dealers who don't disclose where they came from. 

Nick Hill, general manager at Nick of Time Automotive in Owings Mills, has seen it happen before.

“We pulled the carpet back and we were able to see where paint lines and water lines were inside of the vehicle and there was actually still moisture in spots where it had just not never been able to evaporate out of,” said Hill.

You should inspect the interior for any water damage then look under the hood. Experts can also check for signs of flooding.

For more information on flooded cars, click here.

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