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Grand Theft Auto Enters the Computer Age

Crime: Hackers are using cyberspace to obtain credit information and purchase luxury vehicles under assumed identities.


In a new twist on an old crime, computer-savvy thieves have begun hacking into credit files and fabricating drivers' licenses, then walking into car dealerships and buying luxury cars under assumed identities, authorities said.

After putting about $10,000 down for a new $120,000 Mercedes-Benz, authorities say, the thief then drives off the lot, leaving behind a commission-happy salesperson. Within a week, they say, the car will most likely be in a container bound for resale on foreign shores.

"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 members of his Taskforce for Regional Autotheft Prevention, or TRAP, arrested about 60 people in 1997 who were running such scams.

One of last year's victims was Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke and her husband, William.

In her case, 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. She said the man then obtained a driver's license in William Burke's name and went on a spending spree.

Using the Burkes' credit information, the man bought four Yamaha WaveRunner personal water vehicles and a BMW and tried to purchase a Mercedes-Benz and 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 so he could pull the WaveRunner behind the car.

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

Bryan said another scam involved fraudulent applications for car purchases at a San Gabriel Valley dealership. In that case, investigators seized eight cars and believe as many as 40 more were purchased and illegally sold.

The thieves generally don't shop for bargains either, Bryan said.

"They go for Mercedeses, BMWs, Lexuses, you name it."

Bryan said the thieves are typically well-dressed--sometimes even in suits--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 a stolen car is about $60,000, and that most of those who have been arrested are suspected of stealing numerous cars.

The thieves usually make tens of thousands of dollars' profit on a single sale.

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

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.

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

People who have had their identities stolen and used to purchase the cars are not liable, Bryan said.

Burke said, even though she was in a position to put pressure on authorities to solve the case, she spent months trying to clean up her credit.

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

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