CHULA VISTA, Calif. - A Chula Vista man found out the hard way that sophisticated car thieves can even fool the federal government.
Joe Torres was ordered to turn over the keys to his Jeep five years after he bought it at a government auction after investigators realized it had a false 17-digit VIN.
"It's like, what's going on?" a frustrated Torres told Team 10.
Torres said he was shocked when he found out the 2007 Jeep Commander his family had enjoyed for several years had been stolen. Worse yet, he bought it from a government auto auction that issued a certificate stating the Jeep and its title came from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
"If I would've done that I'd be in jail, you know?" said Torres.
Torres and his brother-in-law Jose Cervantes were shopping for a family vehicle for his wife to shuttle the couple's three kids to and from school and other activities. They found the silver 2007 Jeep Commander at Robertson's Auto Auction in April 2010. Since Torres didn't have enough cash, Cervantes, bought the car, and then later transferred the title to Torres.
Torres said the Jeep had low mileage and was structurally sound, but it needed a lot of work. It had been seized at the San Ysidro border and had been "ripped apart," according to Torres.
There were holes cut in the gas tank, the upholstery was slashed and there were holes in the vehicle's doors.
It took several months of work before the Jeep was ready for Torres' wife and kids.
In August 2011, Torres transferred the title into his own name and paid the registration fees. He said nobody at the DMV questioned whether he was the true owner. Torres also said he paid the vehicle's annual registration fees every year.
Little did he know, nearly five years later, that title would come back to haunt him.
Torres was notified by the DMV that he needed to bring the Jeep in for an inspection. When he got there, an officer told him the VIN on his vehicle and on the registration papers was a phony.
"I'm like, 'Whoa,' you know, the government sold me a stolen vehicle. I was in a stolen vehicle this whole time," Torres said.
Torres handed over the keys on February 11, and he is still searching for answers.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Border Patrol told Team 10 the department's asset forfeiture department takes "meticulous steps" to make sure all vehicles salvaged and sold have clear titles.
Team 10 called Robertson's Auto Auction, which handled the sale, and Lorean Lindstrom told us she can't comment on how the mistake was made, but did say Torres' claim had been approved and that he would be refunded the purchase amount of $8,000.
As of this story, that check is still in the mail.
Lindstrom instructed Team 10 to contact the company's main office in San Antonio. Our calls went unanswered.
"For some reason, they're making it seem like they're not liable, they're not responsible and I'm like, you sold me a stolen car," said Torres. "How could you not give me my refund? The minute you figured out my car was stolen and you sold it, you should have given me a refund right then and there."
Torres said his family went more than four months waiting for the refund before he finally financed a van for his wife and children.
He still wants that check.
Team 10 also reached out to the California Department of Motor Vehicles. A DMV spokesman wrote:
"It is very unfortunate that Mr. Torres was the victim of a crime. There is no evidence the California DMV 'dropped the ball.' It appears a stolen vehicle was sold with its Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) switched. When that was discovered, the car was confiscated. Stolen property cannot be kept, even if the person obtained it innocently."
The DMV confirmed the Jeep was reported stolen in January 2009, more than a year before Torres bought it.
Both the DMV and a sergeant with the Regional Auto Theft Task Force, or RATT, told Team 10 the vehicle is part of a "larger on-going investigation."
Investigators with the Regional Auto Theft Taskforce for RATT, tell Team 10 VIN "cloning" is an all too common method used by sophisticated car thieves. It involves crooks copying legitimate vehicle identification numbers from cars and putting those numbers on stolen cars to sell them.
It sometimes takes years before the paperwork catches up with the crime, and by then the criminals can be long gone.
"Some of the thieves are so good that the false VINs are undetectable," said Sgt. Marty Bolger, who has been working auto thefts in the San Diego area for eight years.
Bolger said the forged VINs are getting harder to detect, so it's no surprise that even law enforcement can be fooled. He explained the criminals often look for high-end cars that have been mangled in accidents, then take the VINs. Those VINs wind up on forged title and registration documents that allow stolen cars to be registered by unsuspecting buyers.
When the discrepancy is discovered, the stolen vehicles must be returned to the rightful owner, which sometimes leaves the people who bought them without any recourse.
Bolger offered this advice to avoid buying a vehicle with a false VIN:
1) If a car is priced to sell way below Kelly Blue Book value and seems too good to be true, walk away.
2) Be sure to check the vehicle history report to see if there are any irregularities. Cars that come from out-of-state can be red flags.
3) If you're not buying from a dealership, conduct the transaction in a law enforcement parking lot. If the seller refuses to do so, he or she may be a criminal.
4) Document the transaction by getting receipts and taking pictures of the person selling the vehicle and the license plate of the car they're driving. If the seller says no, so should you.
The National Insurance Crime Bureau has a website that allows you to run a check of your car's VIN.
The California Department of Motor Vehicles also has these tips and advice.