SACRAMENTO — Charles and Susan McBryde thought they had found the perfect buy in a used car.
The clean 1987 Honda Accord was for sale by a private party--a big, jolly man who said he had gotten the vehicle in a recent divorce settlement, but didn't need it. The charcoal-gray sedan ran well, had a sunroof, electric windows and only 49,000 miles on the odometer.
The McBrydes bought it for $7,000.
That was June 4. Two weeks later, the car's clutch went out. Repair cost: $456. A few weeks after that, the McBrydes learned from state Department of Motor Vehicles investigators that their Honda had already been driven more than 100,000 miles when they bought it--twice what the odometer read.
The McBrydes were caught in a used-car scam that is sweeping the state, DMV officials said. They said that growing numbers of Californians from all walks of life are being swindled by crooked automobile peddlers who pick up vehicles from a variety of sources and then pose as private parties selling their family cars.
DMV investigators said they are overwhelmed by the swindlers who, using variations of the scam, are breaking federal odometer tampering laws, state fraud statutes, stolen car trafficking laws, as well as regulations requiring licenses to sell cars for profit.
"The scope is tremendous," said LaDonna Devenberg, senior special investigator for the DMV in San Diego. Although there are no hard and fast statewide numbers, "it is happening in every city in California faster than we can keep up with it."
"It's a constant battle," agreed Vince Rojas, a DMV senior investigator in Los Angeles. "You're not going to stop it. . . . It's fairly easy money."
California--where more than 4 million used cars changed hands last year--is a juicy market for auto scam artists posing as private parties, DMV investigators say.
The swindlers use various schemes, but generally exploit the common belief that it is more prudent to buy a used car from a private party than from a car dealer.
In some cases, high-mileage cars are bought at auction and their odometers are rolled back before they are resold. In others, wrecks are fixed up and palmed off as pampered one-owner cars. Sometimes the vehicles are stolen.
In many cases, licensed automobile dealers pose as private parties selling family cars in order to sell vehicles they obtained through auctions or trade-ins. Such back-door sales save the dealers taxes, and dupe the buyers into thinking they are dealing with a private party. Frequently, slickers simply buy cars through classified ads, spruce them up and, without re-registering them, jack up the prices and resell them, posing as original owners.
The DMV has only 230 investigators statewide to try to police private-party scams as well as other vehicle-related crimes.
Last year, DMV officials, acting on complaints and their own investigations, opened cases on 1,200 car peddlers suspected of doing business without a license.
But these cases represent only a fraction of private-party swindles and do not, for example, include instances in which licensed auto dealers were accused of duping used-car buyers by posing as private parties.
Used-car swindlers sometimes peddle automobiles at vehicle swap meets. Sometimes, they simply make curbside deals with buyers attracted by "For Sale" signs in car windows. Frequently, however, victims are fleeced via classified ads.
It was a classified ad in a Sacramento newspaper that attracted the McBrydes to a trio of alleged swindlers now accused of victimizing at least 36 other buyers in 1990-1991, taking in $238,505, according to DMV investigators.
The trio, Richard Alan Catalano, Karen Lynn Aderhold and Rob J. Sipe, were using Sipe's state license to sell automobiles to buy high-mileage used cars at restricted dealers' auctions, according to authorities. The odometers were rolled back, and Catalano and Aderhold placed ads and posed as private parties to sell the vehicles, investigators said. The three have been charged with grand theft, and Sipe has surrendered his dealer's license.
The McBrydes are still paying the price of the alleged scam. Susan, a registered nurse, and Charles, a respiratory therapist, are paying $252 a month on the bank loan they obtained to buy the car. It is unlikely that the McBrydes could sell the vehicle for what they owe on it because of its high mileage. They worry that the car, which one of them drives to work every day, is about to break down again.
"I am angry," said Susan McBryde, "because I let myself be taken like that, that I trusted the guy."
Some people in the San Francisco Bay Area are angry about the used cars they bought there. In Hayward, Sergio Paz took the used-car scam a step further than the Sacramento trio, DMV investigators said.
Paz bought dozens of high-mileage wrecks at auctions, fixed them up, rolled back the odometers on some, and sold them as one-owner vehicles, officials said.