An alert Manatee County Tax Collector employee recently discovered a stolen car when the new owner attempted to get a title for it at the Office. The 2012 Honda, worth approximately $25,000, was then seized by Manatee County Sheriff’s Office deputies.
The employee, who asked not to be identified, has gone through training on how to identify stolen cars.
Law enforcement confirmed that the car, known in the auto theft industry as a “clone,” had been reported stolen out of New Jersey. A cloned vehicle is a stolen car whose VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) and title paperwork have been altered to mask the true identity of the car.
“Our employee put her training to work, detecting issues with title paperwork and the registration history of the car,” said Ken Burton, Jr., the county's tax collector. “Our office offers advanced fraud and theft detection training to all our front line associates and information from Carfax.com also played an important role in the process, helping to confirm that there were problems with the vehicle’s paperwork.”
Cloned cars are rare compared to the thousands of transactions processed each year.
The Manatee County Tax Collector’s Office is a leader in the state in discovering stolen and ‘cloned’ cars. In the past few years, employees have uncovered a stolen Cadillac Escalade, a Mercedes SUV and various other vehicles. In most cases, the stolen car is returned to the owner who reported it stolen or to the insurance company that paid out a theft claim on the vehicle.
The cars are usually "for sale by owner" and buyers typically meet with the owners in a parking lot and pay cash for the cars. They don't realize they have been duped until they try to register the vehicle.
“It’s one of those things that people just don’t think about,” Burton said. “They reply to an ad or see a car for sale in a parking lot and then call to meet the owner.”
Burton recommends reducing the risk of a car buyer becoming a victim by:
1. Purchase a car from a licensed Florida auto dealer: This provides for greater consumer protection.
2. Obtain a Carfax or similar registration/title history on the car and carefully review it, checking for discrepancies.
3. If it is a private/casual sale, meet the seller at a Tax Collector’s Office to ensure that there are no problems with the title transfer. Appointments for title transfers are available at all four tax collector offices in Manatee, so if a seller is not willing to come in, be skeptical. The number to call to schedule an appointment is 941.741.4800.
4. Be especially cautious with vehicles sold on the internet; there have been problems with cars purchased from the internet being stolen and/or the new owner could not obtain the proper paperwork to title the vehicle in Florida.
5. If a buyer must make a purchase and cannot visit an office, the buyer should consider obtaining a bill of sale and look at the seller’s Driver License/ID Card so that law enforcement can pursue if the vehicle ends up being stolen or if additional paperwork is needed from the seller.
6. Finally, if the deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is!