If you're buying a car at a dealership, and the car has a clean title and CARFAX report, you don't expect to find out you bought a stolen car.
But that’s exactly what happened to James Owens of Tullahoma, Tennessee.
In January, Owens unknowingly bought a stolen car for some $26,000, then later watched in disbelief as a criminal investigator hauled it away on a wrecker.
Owens bought the 2017 Challenger from Chicago Fine Motors, a dealership in Chicago.
After it was delivered, Owens tried to register the car’s vehicle identification number (VIN) on the manufacturer's website.
"They said this VIN doesn't exist," Owens said of a Chrysler representative. "I told her, ‘I feel a headache coming on."
The general manager of Chicago Fine Motors, Phil Koperdowski, told the News 4 I-Team’s Nancy Amons that his company had purchased the Challenger at a Manheim auto auction in Chicago.
Koperdowsk said that Manheim also got scammed. He said Manheim bought about $2 million worth of cars, all from one seller. The cars turned out to be stolen. They had phony VIN numbers.
Owens said the VIN on his stolen Challenger looked authentic.
"The one on the dash was bogus, but it looked professional. It looked like it should," Owens said.
Manheim did not respond to inquiries from News 4.
The stolen cars had fake titles from the state of Wisconsin, where Koperdowski said the laws aren't as strict as in other states.
"The FBI guy said this was a high-tech bunch, and they've never had to deal with this before," Owens said.
Chicago Fine Motors gave Owens his money back.
Now Owens wants to know why CARFAX didn't know this was a stolen car.
“It had CARFAX stickers all over it,” Owens said. "Just caught me totally off guard. When you see the CARFAX, most people think it's good," Owens said.
Owens emailed CARFAX’s consumer affairs department. A CARFAX consumer affairs analyst wrote back to Owen saying “we have no way of knowing that this vehicle was stolen if this was not reported to CARFAX.”
Owens asked CARFAX about its buyback guarantee, which states, “if we miss it, we buy it.”
CARFAX wrote that that only covers “if there is a branded title that was missed by CARFAX.”
A branded title, according to CARFAX’s website, is information added by a state agency to indicate the car has been “significantly compromised in some way,” for example, if the car was flood-damaged or has a salvage title.
The Wisconsin title on the stolen Challenger carried no such warnings; the title itself was bogus, and the car’s VIN number was a fake.
CARFAX’s media representative did not respond to News 4’s email regarding the stolen Challenger.
The FBI is working with state agencies and insurance investigators. They’re not commenting because a federal investigation is in progress.
Could Owens have done anything different to prevent himself from becoming a victim? Investigators said, not really. Owens bought from a reputable dealer, and ran a CARFAX report.
News 4 found that other vehicle history checks also failed to reveal the problem; even the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s website didn’t raise any red flags when Amons entered the suspect VIN.
A representative from the National Insurance Crime Bureau told Amons that buyers aren’t always as fortunate as Owens. Some buyers who didn’t know they bought a stolen car are out all their money when the car is confiscated and returned to the original owner or the insurance company.
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