HOUSTON (FOX 26) - You can find almost anything on craigslist. Buyers can find vehicles while dishonest sellers can find suckers. All it takes is an ad and a forged title. It's getting to the point that the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector has a special investigation unit devoted to the scammers.
“They're pretty brazen," says Bill Smith, chief of the unit. "All they have to do is make an appearance and immediately as soon as the car is sold they take the listing out of craigslist. They'll go back to a burned phone and you've got nothing to go with.”
How does it work?
The scammer steals a car, sometimes from an individual and sometimes from a vehicle lot. He or she posts an ad online then agrees to meet and sell the title to the unsuspecting buyer. The false seller brings a forged or doctored title. Often the deal is so good that the buyer doesn't check it carefully.
“We get titles for Fords when they bought a Chevrolet," says Chief Smith. "They don't check on the details.”
That's exactly what happened to Soccor Hernandez. She bought a Honda Pilot for $6,000 and only found out she was the victim of fraud when she tried to register the vehicle. She was lucky -- the dealership donated it to the single mother.
The special investigation unit started around ten months ago and has four people. They are currently investigating fifty such cases.
Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Mike Sullivan says buyers should research the title and vehicle identification number on a website like CARFAX. They can also contact dealerships to determine if the VIN indicates that a vehicle is stolen. He adds that they should check out the seller too.
“Make sure that you take a photograph, look at the I.D.," explains Sullivan. "Take a photo of the I.D. Make sure the I.D. looks like the person you are dealing with. Take a picture of the vehicle he comes up in or leaves.”
Sullivan says that unfortunately the burden falls on the buyer. By the time you try to register a new purchase, it's often too late.
“It's hard enough to make a living and make ends meet," reminds Sullivan. "Don't give your money away.”
You have heard it time and time again -- if a deal sounds like it's too good to be true, it probably is. Do not be afraid to walk away.