Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.
These days scams are more convoluted and can trap even the most vigilant people. Specifically, the post-COVID-19 environment has exposed a troubling trend: automotive fraud seems to be on the rise. Many victims, most of whom are business owners or educated professionals, are classic car enthusiasts. They know their craft. And yet many of them find themselves exposed to scam risk because the auto repair industry is still poorly regulated and draws in fraudsters. Crooked repair shops take advantage of fancy websites, online marketing, and fraudulent and misused mechanic’s title liens to steal customers’ money and cars. While consumers certainly have a responsibility to educate themselves to avoid being scammed, government watchdogs should also be on the lookout to protect consumers.
Motor vehicle theft is the third most common property crime in the United States. More than 810,000 vehicles were stolen in 2020, adding up to about $7.4 billion in losses to consumers. While 86 percent of these thefts were reported to the police, just 17.2 percent of these crimes were “cleared,” meaning that a suspect was charged with the crime. In most cases, the car fraud victims have already been swindled out of their money and may not even be able to recover the vehicles they have entrusted to the crooks. This is because criminals know how to abuse liens and often sell the cars that they take in to restore or repair from under their owners through VIN swaps or other schemes. Even if the vehicle is not illegally sold from under its rightful owners, it is often dismantled for parts that get shamelessly hawked on such online platforms as eBay. For these reasons suing often becomes too expensive and criminal prosecutions are rare and can also take a long time and effort.
On rare occasions, the law holds the car repair scammers accountable.
Recently, law enforcement caught up with a restoration fraudster, Jimmy Richard May II. May
was arrested in Brunswick, Ohio on nine felony counts of theft by conversion. In one of the cases May, who is currently held in custody on a six-figure bail, allegedly sold a 1967 Pontiac GTO that was under his care for restoration. In another charge, May stole a 1966 Chevy G-10 pickup truck valued at $20,000. Another arrest warrant filed in March 2021 alleges May pocketed a $9,249.95 check, for which he was supposed to perform work on a 1954 Chevy 210. May also allegedly stole the 1954 Chevy 210. Another warrant filed in March 2021 alleges May took $37,000 in advance for work on a 1969 Plymouth Road Runner. The charges include multiple counts of felony theft by taking, theft by conversion, and theft by deception.
In another egregious instance of restoration fraud, an alleged fraudster in California offered
classic car restoration services to the car community under the name West Coast Chassis, LLC. Jeffrey Scott Hodges was charged with 22 federal charges of both wire fraud and money laundering. Vintage Corvette and Camaro owners were the targeted victims for fake chassis and frame restoration services that were never performed, according to the prosecutors. Hodges promoted custom frames that modernized the suspension, braking, steering, and safety of the vintage cars. The alleged criminal claimed through online marketing that a 2015 Chevy Corvette Z06 was to be used for specifications with all design work done in Solid Works CAD. According to authorities and other media stories, Hodges swindled his victims out of over $600,000.
In yet another example of car repair fraud, a local Gig Harbor, Washington couple, Brian Hall and Michele Hall, were sued by victims who claim in court filings that the Halls and their restoration business swindled them out of hundreds of thousands of dollars through an eight-year criminal scheme. According to legal documents, once the fraud was uncovered, lawsuits followed. The Halls allegedly launched a smear campaign against the attorneys representing the victims of the scheme by posting insults and lies on social media and creating fake websites to malign the attorney who took them and their repair shop, Defenders Northwest, LLC, to court. Court documents painstakingly explain how Michele Hall and Brian Hall orchestrated a plan to cheat their clients out of their Land Rover Defender 130 vehicle. Allegedly, the Halls kept running the scam for years, sending fraudulent invoices while making up excuses regarding why the owners’ vehicles could not be delivered. Brian Hall claimed that his shop was targeted for multiple burglaries and instances of vandalism; then, he told his customers that COVID-19 delays and sudden phantom electrical problems led to more delays
Unfortunately, cases where the scammers are held accountable for automotive restoration fraud are rare. More must be done to prevent these miscreants from preying on trusting members of an enthusiast community who may not appreciate that their passion for vintage cars makes them an easy target for criminals. Vintage car owners are part of a social subset that, because of their reverence towards certain aspects of the past, may feel that traditional values like integrity and honor would be adhered to by businesses that cater to their passions. But these criminals count on that optimistic view of human nature to scam vintage car aficionados with virtual impunity.
In the meantime, the best way to mitigate the risk of being scammed when planning a restoration project is to do your due diligence before releasing your car to the care of a repair shop. Scammers will often promise unrealistic results just to get a potential customer to hire them. As in all business matters an attitude of caveat emptor must take center stage. Individuals who have saved and invested in personal trophies of automotive history must remember that the future may hold unpleasant surprises if one fails to take proper precautions.
Our leaders in Washington need to recognize that this problem is not going away. More must be done to protect these classic car customers.
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