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Fake Car Title Can Inflict Real Pain on Buyer

August 16, 2000|RALPH VARTABEDIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

More than six cars and trucks an hour are stolen on average all year long in Los Angeles County, by far the riskiest place in California--and one of the worst in the country--to keep a set of wheels parked.

The majority of those vehicles are recovered, but about 8,000 motorists a year in Los Angeles County--and about 21,000 statewide--never see their cars or trucks again. Unrecovered vehicles end up in foreign countries, are chopped up for parts, or are "washed"--resold with phony titles.

And as with counterfeit currency, a fake title hangs the holder out to dry.

But for the everyday consumer, a vehicle title is just another form of bureaucratic torture imposed by the Department of Motor Vehicles. Not many things we own require titles. A $20,000 diamond ring does not, whereas a $500 clunker car does.

Although vehicle titles can be a hassle--they are often lost or are rejected because signatures are written on the wrong lines--they are one of the most important forms of consumer protection against being cheated in a used-car deal. Knowing something about titles and vehicle fraud can help you avoid falling victim to a scam artist.

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Titles, simply put, are proof of ownership. A lot of people leave their vehicle titles in the glove compartment--not a smart move. For with a legitimate title, a thief can sell a vehicle in hours.

Titles exist in large part to assist banks and other institutions that finance cars and trucks. Without a clear title, it is impossible to sell a vehicle.

Not much regarding vehicle titles has changed in decades. The DMV has experimented with electronic titles, but these are primarily for the convenience of banks and other financial institutions. Only 215 of the state's 5,000 chartered banks, credit unions and other vehicle-financing institutions use so-called paperless titles, says Diane Mobley, the DMV's program administrator for electronic liens and titles. Individual motorists are never allowed to get electronic titles.

The paper titles used in California conform to federal guidelines that are supposed to make them difficult to counterfeit. Although widely referred to as "pink slips," they actually are multicolor forms embossed with the state seal and containing several watermarks showing a grizzly bear. The borders of the form are engraved with finely printed lines that are difficult to duplicate with precision.

While most people couldn't distinguish a fake title from a real one, Vito Scattaglia can do so in an instant. Scattaglia is commander of the DMV division of investigations for Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.

"They don't use the right kind of paper, but they get it close enough," Scattaglia says of the forged titles he has seen recently. "They reproduce seals and colors. They pass very easily."

Title fraud is not a specific crime, but it is usually prosecuted by local authorities as grand theft or under laws that forbid the submission of false documents. So it is difficult to know how widespread the practice is.

Private-party vehicle deals are the No. 1 situation in which people get cheated with fake titles, Scattaglia says. DMV investigators see a lot of title fraud executed by unlicensed used-car dealers, who often set up in shopping center parking lots.

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A couple of precautions could save you the hassle of buying a "hot" car with a fake title. Always ask to see a seller's driver's license. It also may be a fake, of course, but it's worth a look anyway.

When you call a seller, never initially volunteer specific information that you spot in an ad. Always say, "I'm calling about your car for sale." If they ask "which one" or they try to fudge their answer, you may be dealing with a "curbstoner" who sells used cars and trucks for a living or with an unauthorized dealer.

Do not buy a vehicle from an individual who meets you at a location other than a personal residence. Watch to see that the person actually comes out of a residence, since one common scam is for fraudulent sellers to be working on the hot car in front of a house they don't live in, Scattaglia says.

Another important step: Demand that the seller have a smog certification, which is his or her responsibility under state law. And obtaining a smog certificate requires a legitimate vehicle registration.

The best way of buying a used car or truck is to have the seller and buyer both go to the DMV, though that's too much bother for both parties in most cases.

Typically, hot cars and phony titles carry unusually low prices to get the deal done fast.

"People let their guard down," Scattaglia says, "when they see a person has a title and a low price."

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Ralph Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but responds in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Please do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: ralph vartabedian@latimes.com.

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