Stolen Ford F-150s sold with clean titles in million-dollar ploy from Michigan to Arizona
By Phoebe Wall Howard, Detroit Free Press,2023-06-09
A string of new Ford F-150s stolen directly from holding lots in recent months has triggered a cascade of misfortune for customers, dealers, title companies and others across the western United States, the Detroit Free Press has learned.
The problems center on 14 such vehicles stolen late last year in metro Detroit, but a trove of police documents and court records, along with a private investigator, suggest the overall scheme could be bigger, ensnaring unwitting victims and prompting criminal probes and lawsuits.
It all began when an estimated $1 million in pickup trucks were stolen off lots from metro Detroit between mid-October and mid-December. How the trucks disappeared remains a mystery.
However, police reports document a lack of surveillance video and vehicles parked with keys inside. Police in at least two states have learned that Ford or its partners running the lots have failed to report the vehicles stolen for weeks, months, or ever.
The pickups were driven off the lots to the Phoenix metro area to be sold to unsuspecting buyers, according to fuel and toll receipts provided to the Free Press, part of the USA TODAY Network. Pickup odometers reflected miles traveled between Michigan and Arizona, according to police and court records.
Police reports in Michigan and Arizona chronicle a bizarre web of activity showing how a cache of blank vehicle titles stolen in Georgia in 2007 was used to get stolen pickups quickly sold with clean titles.
When stolen vehicles are not reported stolen, title companies, auction houses and car dealers are not alerted and have no idea. As protocol, they run security checks through a national computer system to verify legitimate transactions when buying, selling and titling vehicles.
How it all works
A thief takes a vehicle from a holding lot, which is managed by Ford or the automaker's partners, and drives it to the Phoenix metro area. Then someone submits a stolen Georgia title filled out with the Ford vehicle information and gets a new title from an actual title company. Then the vehicle has the apparent legitimacy to go into the consumer pipeline through sales to various car dealers or individuals. In some incidents the Free Press reviewed, the vehicle had changed hands four times prior to being discovered as stolen.
A Phoenix police investigation led to the seizure of the 14 Ford F-150 vehicles and a report to Ford that possible stolen vehicles had been recovered, but the automaker was asked to confirm. Police reports indicated that Ford was not alerted by any security or tracking system when its vehicles went missing.
One woman learned of the problem when her dealership was raided by armed police. An auto auction house found out when police came to collect stolen vehicles the auction house had processed with clean titles. A Ford customer was notified by law enforcement that the truck he purchased was stolen.
As a result of these thefts, small family-owned auto dealers and title companies, as well as national vehicle and financial entities, including AutoNation, say they've been swindled.
Who owns these new F-150 pickups?
The status of the vehicles today is murky, as many have been impounded by Phoenix police. Who owns them? It is unclear whether the thefts were an inside job or whether the scheme could involve more than the 14 trucks. Ford declined to provide theft data to the Free Press.
Addison Brown, co-owner of Cascio Motors in Scottsdale, Arizona, with her husband, Joey, said her family has been battered financially after working 15 years to build their business. They were raided on Dec. 23 by armed police at the dealership in search of four F-150 pickups that police said were stolen. Cascio paid an average of $65,000 apiece for the trucks. Police had a warrant. Brown was assembling and wrapping Christmas gifts at her dealership for her young children with their grandparents at the time.
"I'm supposed to lock up my cars and have security cameras. How can Ford leave trucks out with keys in them in 2023? Why don't they have better security?" Brown told the Free Press. "I'm out $300,000 and my trucks have been impounded. When you read through the police reports, you can see that this case was worked backwards. Ford did not initially report trucks stolen. And when people ask questions, Ford is nonresponsive."
She added Thursday, "If Ford would have done an inventory check once a week, let's say, and noticed cars were missing, they would've had to report them stolen, and those reports pop up everywhere – on a title search, on CARFAX. There's so many notifications that prevent you from buying a stolen car. No one would have gotten scammed. What about a surveillance? What about a wall and gate? What about taking the keys out of the cars? Any of these minor adjustments."
The 14 stolen pickups left the holding lots unscathed, unlike thefts from various dealer lots where vehicles smashed through gates or were sold for a few thousand and found on the streets of Detroit.
Again and again
Michael Lorette, owner of Prompt Titles & Registrations in Phoenix, said he has instructed staff not to title any 2022-23 Ford F-150s. His wife of 49 years ran the business with him until early 2021 when she died after having COVID-19.
Lorette, an authorized third-party provider to the Arizona Department of Transportation, told the Free Press that title companies don't inspect vehicles but instead, process state-validated paperwork. That's what he said his company did with an F-150 in November.
"Weeks later, we get notification that we're being sued by a dealer saying they bought the brand new pickup truck based on our information, that we're in cahoots with however this vehicle is stolen," Lorette said. "If it had come up stolen in the system, being reported stolen, the transaction would be stopped. We would be required to call the police and do whatever we can to hold the people in the office without using force until the police arrived."
After getting caught up in the fraud initially, he said, three additional F-150 trucks were brought to his office. In December, his company noticed the title listed a pickup as a model year 2022 but the VIN said model year 2023. Lorette's company declined to process the next three F-150 sellers. When a fourth seller with an F-150 came through the door, Lorette's team photocopied all the information, recorded the man on video and declined his transaction.
Ford dealerships tangled up in lawsuits
Even Ford dealers weren't immune from the scam, according to at least one lawsuit that named companies in New Mexico and Texas.
◾ Rich Ford Sales in Albuquerque purchased an F-150 truck from Metro Auto Auction.
◾ Pollard Friendly Ford in Lubbock bought a truck from Metro Auto Auction and then sold it to a retail buyer.
Both Ford dealers conducted transactions based on paperwork that appeared to be legitimate but the trucks turned out to be stolen. Metro Auto Auction is owned by Berkshire Hathaway and is suing to reclaim its losses.
Ford: 'Theft is a sad reality'
Meanwhile, Ford says the car theft problem is widespread and other automakers have also been targeted.
"Product theft is a sad reality for all manufacturers, including every carmaker and retailers. When we become aware of robberies, we promptly report the losses to law enforcement agencies. ... In fact, along with unsuspecting people who purchase these vehicles, Ford and other companies are victims here," Ford spokesman Ian Thibodeau told the Free Press.
Police documents show delays of weeks and months of Ford reporting thefts or, in some cases, never reporting at all.
Thibodeau declined to respond to questions submitted by the Free Press, including:
◾ How many F-150 vehicles were stolen from Michigan lots this year and last?
◾ What is Ford doing to prevent theft from its storage lots, specifically in Michigan?
◾ Why would Ford not report some stolen vehicles as stolen, or wait months?
Thibodeau said, "We can’t respond to your specific questions as several law enforcement agencies are investigating these thefts. Ford is fully cooperating with all authorities involved."
'Unlocked with keys inside'
Police have documented that they were not immediately notified when Ford trucks went missing. It could not be determined from case files whether Ford even knew trucks went missing.
"On Jan. 12, 2023, I contacted (a) Ford Employee ... who is responsible for locating vehicles in their holdings lots in Michigan and reporting them stolen if necessary. (He) confirmed he is assisting the Phoenix Police Department on their case," a detective with the Arizona Department of Transportation, Office of Inspector General, wrote in a report on Jan. 27. "He said they are losing approximately seven vehicles a week due to theft."
In one situation, a person associated with a third party that stores Ford vehicles told Dearborn Police that a gold 2023 Ford F-150 had gone missing sometime between Nov. 24, 2022, and Dec. 17, 2022. The company knew when it was last there and someone just happened to notice it was gone after being "unlocked with the keys inside," according to the police report. The company had no video footage or suspect information but asked that the vehicle be entered into the system as stolen.
In early January, in another case, a security supervisor reported to police that a black 2022 F-150 had gone missing from the Dearborn Truck Plant sometime between Sept. 3, 2022, and Jan. 2, 2023. There were no suspect descriptions and, again, "it was believed the vehicle was taken with keys," according to the police report. It said the vehicle had been recovered in Arizona and Ford was in the process of taking possession. The security supervisor wanted the truck "documented as stolen for their recording purposes."
Victims suing other victims
Lawsuits involving more than a dozen parties have been filed over the sales of stolen vehicles that had clean titles and no record of theft. Victims are suing other victims.
Lawsuits have been filed in Maricopa County, Arizona, courts in February, March and April among title companies, car dealers and auction houses. One of the plaintiffs is VT Motors, which is also owned by Berkshire Hathaway. Another plaintiff is Metro Auto Auction, against Brown and others. They're all suing and countersuing because companies have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars after buying and reselling new Ford F-150s that turned out to be stolen.
'Eligible for felony stops at gunpoint'
Matthew DeLisio, a California-based private detective who specializes in financial crimes and fraud, usually works for major corporations with hundreds of millions of dollars in losses. But he is working with Addison Brown and Cascio Motors in Scottsdale, he said, because the family needs help battling an endless nightmare that is not of their doing.
"Through our investigation, we have found Ford vehicles are not leaving the holding lots in a dramatic and obvious way," DeLisio told the Free Press. "They appear to almost be allowed to leave and be gone for months without being missed. And with multiple holding companies running these lots and claiming ownership of the vehicles, it is near impossible for a victim or investigator to trace what day, week, or even month, a vehicle left a particular lot, and who allowed it to leave."
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Ford's attorney consistently provided an on-the-record response of “no comment” to victims' investigators, he said.
Yet there's a public safety concern that Ford is not addressing, DeLisio said.
"Based on Ford's cavalier approach to file stolen vehicle reports months after the vehicles go missing, placing these vehicles into the National Stolen Vehicle Database and making them eligible for felony stops at gunpoint by law enforcement, this inaction to the ongoing problem places the unknowing public at risk and the officers tasked with pulling these cars over and taking them," he said.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Stolen Ford F-150s sold with clean titles in million-dollar ploy from Michigan to Arizona