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Police get word out about used-car lot fraud

| Monday, May 14, 2012, 12:06 p.m.

James Sailor of Hays said he is lucky he was not pulled over for a traffic violation after he bought a truck for his asphalt business. He would have been in bigger trouble than driving a car with a burned-out tail light or running a stop sign.

He was driving illegally because he didn't have a title to the truck.

'We finally did get the title after seven months,' said Sailor, owner of Sailor Asphalt Paving Co. on Baldwin Road. 'The truck is legal now, but I'll probably still have trouble when I try to sell it.

'The title I got from Harrisburg has written on it, 'Mileage exceeds the mechanical limits.' Why, I don't know,' Sailor said.

'I learned a lot from this mess. Even if I would buy another vehicle from a corner car lot, I'd go to my own notary for the paperwork,' Sailor said after filing a complaint with police.

Another victim, Rich Falchetti of West Mifflin, purchased a 1990 Cadillac DeVille from a lot formerly operating in North Versailles Township.

For close to a year, he could not legally drive the car and was in limbo until the paperwork was straightened out with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

The two are among hundreds of victims of used-car lot operators who fail to send taxes, fees or paperwork to PennDOT on time, police said. The state police vehicle fraud unit has investigated 23 dealerships in cases involving about 2,500 victims in the four-county Pittsburgh region during the past two years.

Police acknowledge that human error often causes headaches for car buyers but add that there are thousands of victims of fraudulent vehicle sales in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Many victims cannot legally drive vehicles purchased from fraudulent used-car dealers because the paperwork, taxes and fees are not properly submitted to PennDOT. That leads to expired registrations and licenses.

Frequently, stolen cars are resold to people using false paperwork, said Butler County Detective Scott Roskovski, who is part of an undercover operation that includes officers from Allegheny County and the Pennsylvania State Police.

'It can happen to anyone. Some people may not even know they are a victim and the cars are junked,' said Cpl. Z.P. Jendrzejewski, who heads the state police Vehicle Fraud Unit based at Troop B in Findlay Township, Allegheny County. State police have a dozen local troopers assigned to the Vehicle Fraud Unit spread through Troop B and Troop A barracks in Findlay; Belle Vernon and Greensburg in Westmoreland County; Washington in Washington County; and Uniontown in Fayette County.

Pins stuck in a wall map at the unit's office in Findlay mark sites where criminal complaints of vehicle fraud have been investigated. Areas where charges have been filed in recent years include Sewickley; along busy arteries such as Route 8; the Cranberry Township area; and Route 19 South in Washington County. The largest concentration of cases filed this year are against used car dealerships in East McKeesport, North Versailles and McKeesport.

Jendrzejewski said car buyers who are suspicious about the transaction should call police.

'The sooner we get involved in a case, the better,' he said. 'The best thing to do, especially if a used car buyer can't get a title or registration, is to call us before the 90 days is up.

'Everyone likes to beat up on PennDOT, but they're not more than 20 days behind (on car titles). Save all your documentation. Do not pay cash for anything, since the receipt is only as good as the person who signs it - and that person may no longer work at the dealership. Best thing to do is use a money order, personal check, or cashier's check.'

Since the vehicle fraud unit was officially formed in January 1997, investigations have shown that dealerships with repeat offenses have employees who move from one location to another, Trooper James Salera said.

'(Victims) are upset because the wheels of justice roll slowly,' Salera said. 'Once victims show up at the preliminary hearings, the car lot owners see this and most end up waiving the charges to court. If the victims don't show up, the charges are dismissed.

'Repeat offenders get others or relatives to open a used car lot under their names,' he said.

Some problems result from sloppy paperwork or bookkeeping, and many complaints are easily resolved, Trooper John Marks said.

'I've had more cases where we've actually cleared more dealerships and garages of wrongdoing than filed criminal complaints,' Marks said. 'And the customers are reassured about their purchase.'

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

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