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North Texas car buyer scammed with VIN scare – NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth

A North Texas car buyer said he thinks he's done enough research after finding a used car on social media. The buyer ordered a vehicle history report and took the car for a test drive before paying cash. He said he took special care to note the VIN, or vehicle identification number, a unique 17-digit code associated with a vehicle.

It wasn't enough.

Read on to learn an important step police say you should take before buying.

A DREAM CAR

For Nic Luna it was love at first sight: “I fell in love with this car.”

After discovering a used Corvette Grand Sport for sale by an individual on a social media marketplace, Luna and the seller arranged to meet in a gas station parking lot.

“We wrote back and forth and met in Dallas,” Luna told NBC 5. “I saw the car, got the VIN, checked it out and then I texted him the next day saying I wanted to buy the car.”

“I test drove it,” Luna added. “Everything seemed fine.”

Luna said he paid $35,000 cash for the car, sealing the deal on Valentine's Day. On his YouTube channel Nic Lunatic, he shared a video of his purchase dedicated to his passion for cars.

Then heartbreak. Luna said he learned he had unknowingly purchased a stolen vehicle.

Luna shared photos of documents provided by the seller that showed the VIN on the title matched the VIN plate in the dashboard, VIN stickers in the door jamb, on the edge of the hood, and even under the trim in the trunk of the car.

Luna said the Dallas County Tax Office marked the title when he requested the transfer after the sale.

“It's a real Texas title and somehow they strip off the old ink and then re-stamp it,” Luna said.

“Who told you that?” asked NBC 5 reporter Diana Zoga.

“The people from the tax office,” Luna replied.

Luna said her questions prompted him to inspect the car again. This time he found a different VIN number engraved into the metal frame of the vehicle. A check of that VIN revealed that the car was reported stolen in December.

Luna filed a report with Dallas police. Officers came to Luna's home, retrieved the stolen Corvette and towed it away. Luna said he has been unable to reconnect with the man who sold him the car.

“It feels terrible, you know? “The car is gone, my savings are gone,” Luna said.

FAMILY LOSES THOUSANDS

It's a problem we've seen before. Wendy Suastes told our colleagues at Telemundo Responde that she felt she took appropriate precautions when her family purchased a pickup truck from a single seller she found online.

“I asked him for his ID, took a photo of him and he signed the title,” Suastes told reporter Martha Minjarez.

Suastes said she later learned the man showed her a fake ID. The VIN stamped on the dashboard was changed to hide the true VIN, which would have shown the truck was stolen.

“I was angry, sad. I wanted to cry because it was $24,000 that we weren't getting back,” Suastes said.

“SOME OF THEM ARE VERY GOOD REPLICAS”

The North Texas Auto Theft Task Force showed us how a consumer may not notice signs of tampering with a VIN plate or sticker.

“You can see some flaws in it, but some of them are very good replicas,” said Doug Sisk of the Dallas County Sheriff's Department.

Sisk said consumers buying from an individual seller should ask the seller to meet with the local tax office to transfer title before paying.

Sisk said, “You always want to check it out and go to a tax office and do an immediate transfer of ownership. That way you know if you have a legitimate car.”

An appointment with the tax office to ensure the proper transfer of ownership also benefits an honest seller.

According to the Texas DMV, a seller could be liable for traffic tickets, toll violations or crimes committed with the vehicle if it is still in their name after a sale.

The DMV also recommends car buyers ask an individual salesperson for previous financing and insurance references. Call the bank or insurance provider to confirm.

Remember: Some stolen vehicles move quickly. The registered owner of the car may not realize that the vehicle is missing. Therefore, it must not yet be marked as stolen in the system.

To protect themselves, Sisk says car buyers should be extremely skeptical if a seller offers a price that seems too good to be true.

In Luna's case, he said the seller told him the price of the car was below market value because the seller was in dire straits.

“He actually had a whole story behind it,” Luna recalled of the seller. “He said he was going to have back surgery and had already had back surgery. He actually lifted up his shirt and showed me a scar.”

Luna urges other car enthusiasts to complete a sale with the tax office to make sure the deal is genuine.

CAN AN ONBOARD DIAGNOSTIC SCANNER HELP?

You may be familiar with on-board diagnostic scanners. The scanners connect to a vehicle and read information from the car's computer. Your mechanic will likely use one to diagnose what caused the check engine light to come on. The information read on the scanner also includes the VIN.

There are simple, inexpensive versions of trouble code reading scanners available to consumers starting at just $20.

NBC 5 asked around to find out if consumer scanners could be a useful tool for car buyers to confirm the authenticity of a VIN. An automotive engineer at the Consumer Reports Auto Testing Center told us this could help uncover a poorly done VIN swap. However, it is not foolproof. On some vehicles, it is possible for a thief to change the VIN number displayed on a diagnostic device.

MORE TIPS AND TOOLS

Dallas County Tax Assessor/Tax Collector John Ames tells NBC 5 that consumers buying from individuals should have the seller accompany them to the county tax office. Before you submit the title application, a representative from the IRS can advise you whether the title that would be transferred to you is accurate and valid at that time.

Ames said the original title should be submitted. The vehicle should be taken to the tax office at the time of delivery as further inspection may be required.

Taking a photo of a title or VIN and asking the IRS to inspect it is not helpful in determining the title's validity, Ames said.

In addition to the title, ask the seller to provide you with the following:

For more information from the Texas DMV about buying or selling a vehicle, click here.

Find more tips from the National Insurance Crime Bureau here.

When you verify a VIN, you will find a link to providers approved by the U.S. Department of Justice to provide information from the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System to the public.

NBC 5 Responds is committed to investigating your concerns and getting your money back. Our goal is to provide you with answers and, if possible, solutions and a solution. Call us at 844-5RESPND (844-573-7763) or fill out our customer complaint form.

Anna Harden

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