Illinois authorities have put the brakes on an auto theft ring involving more than 200 vehicles worth more than $4 million, the Secretary of State's Office announced Monday.
The vehicles, which included luxury makes such as BMW, Land Rover, Cadillac, and Mercedes-Benz, were then sold on the street for cash. Vehicles worth $50,000 were at times sold for a mere $10,000, investigators said.
"Auto industry theft is the new organized crime armed with sophisticated criminals and elaborate schemes that defraud car dealerships and consumers every day," said Illinois State Police Director Hiram Grau in a release. "These criminals and organized rings are busy plying their trade through forgery, theft, and smuggling operations and this take-down underscores the importance of task force collaboration."
That collaboration also included the office of the Secretary of State, the Cook County State's Attorney's office, and the National Insurance Crime Bureau. Investigators reported the recovery of 120 of the vehicles, worth around $2.3 million.
The thieves took leased return vehicles from dealerships, authorities said. They then re-tagged the cars with Canadian and out-of-state vehicle identification numbers, which they used to apply for titles in Illinois, according to investigators.
The out-of-state and country documentation led to the initial discovery of the scheme, which turned up over 100 fraudulent titles, according to the Illinois State Police. After police uncovered the operation, the ring began to change tactics by stealing or buying Social Security numbers to title the vehicles, investigators said.
Prosecutors with the Cook County State's Attorney's Auto Theft Investigations and Prosecutions Unit have charged 21 people in connection with the ring.
Among those charged is Dominique Henley, who pleaded guilty to charges of aggravated possession of a stolen motor vehicle, theft by deception, identity theft, and forgery. He was sentenced to eight years in prison. Henley also bought multiple vehicles using stolen Social Security numbers, prosecutors said.
"While it may not be perceived as the most heinous of crimes, auto theft has increasingly become a more sophisticated and organized crime involving not just the theft of a vehicle, but also other types of fraud such as identity theft, forgery, and loan fraud," said Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez.
To ensure people buy vehicles that are not stolen, the Secretary of State's offices recommends car buyers obtain a vehicle history report, confirm the car's VIN is the same on both the paperwork and the vehicle itself, ensure the vehicle's title has not been altered, and make sure the dealer they buy from is registered with the state.