Phyllis Lamont didn’t know what a curbsider was until her used-vehicle purchase turned into a $41,000 nightmare. Her horror story shows how vulnerable consumers can be to shady characters who make a living selling cars while posing as private sellers. Lamont’s saga began in October 1998, when the Mississauga, Ont., real estate agent and mother of four bought a $22,500 1996 Ford Explorer from a 66-year-old Toronto-area grandmother. The deal was arranged by the woman’s son who supplied Lamont with a UVIP, a used-vehicle information package, a set of government-issued documents meant to protect buyers by tracing a vehicle’s ownership history and verifying it is free of liens. But the document was completely false. The vehicle was also sold with a mechanic-issued safety standards certificate.
Nine days later, Lamont’s life was turned upside down when police seized her Explorer as part of a theft investigation. She was then told her vehicle was actually a stolen 1998 Explorer with a “twin VIN,” a cloned vehicle-identification number that matched an existing 1996 Explorer. Although the cloned number made the vehicle look legitimate on paper, police uncovered the truth.
A careful check of the Explorer showed it had been stripped of its original VIN (a vehicle’s unique serial code, which is visible on the dashboard, on the doors, in the engine compartment and also hidden in little-known spots on the vehicle) and its identity masked by a different VIN. The man who Lamont dealt with was later charged with possession of a stolen vehicle and linked to sales of three other stolen vehicles.
Meanwhile, Lamont was out $22,500 for a vehicle she didn’t own. Although she had insured the Explorer, her insurance claim was refused as she didn’t have true title to the vehicle. Police told her that even if the thief was convicted, she might not recover any money and should consider civil action. As of this past January, she’d already spent more than $19,000 in legal fees without recovering a dime and has now been forced to sell her home.
Lamont’s ordeal is not an isolated fluke. In 1997 and 1998, Toronto police identified 1,100 similarly renumbered vehicles. As auto-theft experts have long known, loopholes in some provincial registration systems can make the public – and even auto dealers – easy prey for sophisticated scam artists.
“It’s a tremendous problem,” notes Ken Haywood, a retired Edmonton auto dealer who has been lobbying for tougher registration rules after his dealership unwittingly bought dozens of stolen vehicles. Haywood would like to see a cross-Canada database with a birth-to-death history of every vehicle in Canada and have it made available to consumers.
Because provincial registration records aren’t linked, crooks can often launder a stolen vehicle or rebuilt wreck simply by registering it in another province. For example, for years Quebec insurers have been legally obliged to promptly report stolen or written-off vehicles. Such rules have helped stamp out a favourite ploy of curbsiders, the laundering of stolen vehicles by using VINs from wrecks. But because the reporting of wrecked and stolen vehicles isn’t mandatory in Ontario, it has become a dumping ground for vehicles that would be red flagged in Quebec.
Consumers can take some steps to cut the risk of getting stung by a slick curbsider. The most important precaution is to have any used vehicle inspected by a skilled mechanic who can detect whether the VIN has been switched, if the car has been in a bad accident and if the odometer has been rolled back. Consumers should also try to locate and contact as many previous owners as possible.
Lamont, however, will now stick to buying from dealers. “I trusted the system,” she says. “I never realized this kind of stuff goes on.”
Maryanna Lewyckyj is consumer advocate for the Toronto Sun. She conducts car care seminars for women through her company, Autophobics Anonymous.
Don’t be burned at the curb
Clues you may be dealing with a curbsider: