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Thieves Steal Credit Reports to Buy Cars

Crime: Computer-savvy con artists use information to purchase luxury imports in victims' names, officials warn.

October 23, 1998|SCOTT GLOVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a new twist on an old crime, computer-savvy thieves are breaking into confidential credit files then using the stolen information to buy luxury cars under assumed identities.

For $10,000 or so in cash, a thief can drive away in a new $120,000 Mercedes-Benz, financing the transaction with a stolen credit history. Usually within a week, authorities say, the car is loaded into a shipping container bound for resale overseas.

"The problem is growing on a monthly basis," said John Bryan, a Los Angeles County sheriff's captain who runs a regional anti-car theft unit.

Bryan estimated that 60 people were arrested last year for such scams. One of the victims was Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke.

Burke said a con artist took her name from the newspaper and paid a Georgia jeweler to run a credit check on her to obtain more information. The man then obtained a driver's license in her husband William Burke's name and went on a spending spree.

Using the Burkes' credit information, the man bought four Yamaha Waverunners and a BMW. He tried unsuccessfully to purchase a Mercedes-Benz and a Ford Thunderbird.

"We were getting bills in the mail every day," Burke said. "It was driving me crazy."

She said the man was finally caught when he brought the BMW back to the dealership to have a trailer hitch installed--to tow the Waverunners.

In another case last year, authorities allege, a man established a dummy real estate company to obtain personal credit histories. He used the information to make more than $1 million in fraudulent purchases, including several cars.

Bryan said one scam targeted a San Gabriel Valley dealership. In that case, investigators seized eight cars and suspect that as many as 40 more were purchased and illegally sold.

The thieves generally don't shop for bargains, Bryan said. "They go for Mercedeses, BMWs, Lexuses, you name it."

Bryan said the thieves are typically well-dressed and have a calm demeanor as they "shop" for a car.

"They walk in there looking like they can afford it," he said. "They know what they're doing."

Bryan said the average price of the stolen cars is about $60,000, and that most of those who have been arrested are suspected of stealing more than one. Thieves usually make tens of thousands of dollars on each sale.

"They make a killing," Bryan said.

Because cases are time-consuming and difficult to prove, he said, an offender is often charged with only one theft.

Popular markets for the stolen vehicles are China, numerous republics of the former Soviet Union and the United Arab Emirates, police said.

People who have had their identities stolen are not liable for the car purchases, Bryan said.

The crimes could result in several charges, including grand theft auto and credit card fraud, punishable by a minimum of three years in prison, according to a spokesman for the district attorney's office.

Burke said she spent months trying to clear up her credit after the fraud.

"It was a nightmare," she said. "And it could happen to anybody."

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