If you’ve purchased a car from a local company called Cheap Auto, you might want to sit down for a minute.
Turns out the company was at the center of an intricate auto theft and insurance fraud operation, according to law enforcement officials, which was busted by a joint investigation involving the D.A.’s Office, the Philadelphia Police Department and Pennsylvania State Police.
The alleged scam had plenty of moving parts, but District Attorney Seth Williams said it went something like this: Two men, Jihad Miller and Preston Thomas, ran Cheap Auto, which existed only on paper. They bought salvaged cars through online auctions for one purpose — to strip their vehicle identification numbers.
Other members of the operation, meanwhile, stole cars from rental companies like Hertz, Avis, Enterprise, Alamo, National, Budget, and Dollar/Thrifty. The VIN numbers from the salvaged cars were then planted onto the stolen vehicles. But the operation didn’t stop there.
The stolen cars needed reconstructed titles and registrations before they could be peddled to unsuspecting buyers. So Miller and Thomas allegedly enlisted enhanced vehicle inspectors to help move things along, and dummy up records to make it seem like the cars had undergone past repairs. One inspector was also a certified tag agent who notarized paperwork and sent it along to PennDOT to get a reconstructed title issued, Williams said.
In all, officials said 45 stolen cars were sold for anywhere between $5,000 to $20,000 to buyers who were none the wiser. All but eight were stolen from rental car companies, who were ripped off to the tune of $500,000, Williams said. (Eight people allegedly falsely claimed their cars had been stolen; they collected a total of $60,000 in payouts from insurance companies like AllState, Nationwide and Geico.)
Williams said the investigation began when one man who bought a car from Cheap Auto took the vehicle to a dealership to be repaired. Mechanics realized something was fishy with the car’s VIN number. Things went south from there.
Assistant District Attorney Linda Montag described a woman “who just had a baby at Christmas time, and went and bought a vehicle [from Cheap Auto], and then took the vehicle in to get serviced. The service person told her, ‘This car is stolen.’ And because it didn’t belong to her — it belonged to the owner — she had to give that car back, and walk around with her newborn on buses because all of her money was spent on a brand-new car that was really a stolen, re-plated car because of this scheme.”
All told, 32 people have been charged in connection with the scam. Montag said the D.A.’s Office will seek to have the defendants pay restitution to their victims as part of their possible sentences.
Miller and Thomas are facing felony counts of theft, corrupt organization, tampering with public records, and related offenses. The vehicle inspectors who worked with Cheap Auto — Derrick Hook, Alimamy Kamara and Abu Kamara — are facing felony charges of theft and forgery.
Williams said one alleged member of the operation is still on the run: Karriem Upshur. Anyone with information on his whereabouts can contact Detective Jack Logan at 215-685-9137 or Detective Patrick Gleason at 215-686-8737.
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