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Police cracking down on vehicle fraud

| Monday, May 14, 2012, 12:06 p.m.

Police, state lawmakers and prosecutors are working on making it harder for fraudulent car dealerships to operate.

Used-car dealerships that intentionally mishandle required state paperwork, fees and taxes need to know 'someone is watching,' said state Sen. Sean Logan, a Monroeville Democrat who is working with others on a proposal to combat vehicle fraud.

Logan is working with Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.; state Rep. Thomas Michlovic, a North Braddock Democrat; and the Pennsylvania Automotive Association on ways to prosecute vehicle fraud cases and close loopholes. The group is researching how other areas handle the issue.

This year thousands of charges - from sloppy paperwork procedures to putting the wrong vehicle identification numbers on titles - have been filed against used-car lot operators in southwestern Pennsylvania.

'It's unfortunate that (fraudulent operators) find southwestern Pennsylvania, our neck of the woods, a place to prey on certain folks - seniors and young folks,' Logan said. 'They need to know that we're watching and we're going to find the loopholes in the law and close them.'

Used-car buyers are usually the ones left with vehicles that are not legal to drive until paperwork problems are straightened out with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. That can take months in some cases.

'Cooperation has been tremendous between county prosecutors and state officials,' said Trooper James R. Salera, an investigator with the Pennsylvania State Police Vehicle Fraud Unit based in Findlay Township. Seventy-five troopers who specialize in vehicle fraud, which includes odometer and title deceptions, attended a four-day conference earlier this month at Station Square.

This spring, Zappala appointed an assistant district attorney to specialize in these cases and to target legislative problems.

And in February, state police from the fraud unit held a mass session for victims of three used-car dealerships to file complaints at the Mon Valley Constituent Service Center, Lysle Boulevard, McKeesport.

The center, which opened in January, is a one-stop shop for constituents in the districts of Logan, Michlovic and U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, a Swissvale Democrat.

Two of the three dealerships are now out of business and the third, Lysle Boulevard Auto Sales in McKeesport, is temporarily closed for remodeling, according to owner Robert Richards. Lysle Boulevard Auto Sales also has Westmoreland County locations in South Greensburg and Rostraver Township.

While some charges against Lysle Boulevard Auto Sales are headed to court, said McKeesport District Justice Thomas Brletic, many charges against operators have been dropped after the problems have been resolved with the victims.

Used-car dealerships involved with court proceedings this spring include: the defunct 300 Vans of Camp Horne Road, Kilbuck Township; the out-of-business Jordan's No Regretz, of East Fifth Avenue in McKeesport; the closed Shawn Scheirer Auto Sales Inc., of Fifth Avenue Extension, North Versailles Township; the former Jennifer's Auto Sales of Lysle Boulevard, McKeesport; and the temporarily closed Lysle Boulevard Auto Sales lot at the same location in McKeesport.

Another eastern Allegheny County used-car operator, Robert Cooper of McKeesport, was being investigated by the state police fraud unit when he was found shot to death Dec. 8 in a white 1994 Oldsmobile he was trying to sell from the parking lot at the Olympia Shopping Center, police said.

Cooper, who ran the business called ERC Leasing Corp., was found on the passenger side of the front seat with multiple bullet wounds to the head. Police have not made an arrest.

Rose A. Domenick can be reached at rdomenick@tribweb.com or (412) 380-8521.

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