And You Will Know Us By the Trail of the Stolen Hondas

By Jonah Spangenthal-Lee August 16, 2010

SPD auto theft detectives are hot on the trail of an interstate auto-theft ring, suspected of boosting a number of cars in Seattle and Portland, taking them across state lines, and reselling them on Craigslist—complete with fake keys and titles—over the last two months.

Police know of about a dozen people in Portland and Seattle who are out thousands of dollars after falling for the thieves’ stolen car scam. In each case, the buyers told police they had purchased the cars off Craigslist for $2,000-$3,000 from an Eastern European or Asian man. 

Police say the sellers posed as students and sold the cars for cheap—usually between $2,000 and $2,200, although some sold for as much as $6,000—telling buyers they needed to get cash quick to pay for school. The suspected thieves also provided car titles, which police say had been altered, and filed-down keys.

“The cars don’t look stolen, and their story is plausible,” says SPD auto theft Detective Chris Wrede, one of two detectives working on the case.

Seattle police first became aware of the interstate Honda thefts on June 10th, after a patrol officer in the South Precinct pulled over a stolen Honda Civic with Portland plates. The driver told the officer they had just come from the vehicle emissions test, and had recently purchased the vehicle in the University District from a man with an Eastern European accent.

The very next day, Portland police recovered a black 1998 Honda Civic—stolen in Shoreline—when a man tried to register the vehicle after purchasing it on Craigslist. He too told police he’d purchased the Honda from a "white male in his 20s with an eastern European accent." The Eastern European man had even provided a title for the car, which turned out to be bogus.

According to SPD Detective Dennis Hossfeld, over the next two weeks, police in Washington and Oregon recovered several more stolen mid-to-late-90’s Honda Civics. Police say a half-dozen Portland cars showed up in Seattle, while half-a-dozen Seattle-area cars were found in Portland.

Each car was what auto theft detectives refer to as a “jiggler”: older vehicles—typically with Japanese-made ignition systems like Nissans, Hondas, Toyotas, and Subarus—which thieves are able to start and steal using shaved or altered keys.

Newer cars typically require special microchipped keys to start, making them less vulnerable to thieves’ low-tech tricks.

Police haven’t made any arrests in the case yet, but say they believe the thieves may have sold as many as 40 cars through internet ads, although strangely enough, only about a quarter of them may have been stolen.

While it may be too late for the dozen or so victims already out thousands of dollars, police say there are several steps you can take to protect yourself from a similar scam.

First off, Det. Wrede says, "When people think they have a deal too good to be true, check it out."

The best way to find out whether an out-of-state car is stolen is to accompany the seller to one of the Washington State Patrol's Vehicle Identification Inspection offices—also known as the "VIN lanes"—before you buy the car. “If you want to test drive the car, test drive it to the VIN lane," Det. Hossfeld says.

Police and state patrol officers won’t provide VIN information over the phone.

The closest VIN lane locations are in Bellevue, Tacoma, and Marysville. In state cars can be checked out at the Department of Licensing before you make a purchase.

If you think you might have purchased a stolen out-of-state car, take your car to the VIN lanes and contact SPD's auto theft unit at 684-8940.

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