Ty Swenson
Senior Special Agent Scott Wagner with the National Insurance Crime Bureau addresses the West Seattle Crime Prevention Council on March 20. In his hand is a faulty airbag stuffed with a diaper and held shut with fishing line by a sketchy used car salesman currently under investigation.

WS Crime Prevention Council: Auto theft and fraud, from low to high-tech

Scott Wagner, full time senior special agent for the National Insurance Crime Bureau and part time rodeo clown (seriously, he showed the pictures), swung by the West Seattle Crime Prevention Council meeting on March 20 to discuss auto theft, insurance fraud related to vehicles, and some helpful tips to protect ourselves from becoming a victim.

Wagner works out of Mill Creek, WA and West Seattle is part of his beat. He said he worked closely with Seattle Police on Operation Oliver’s Twist where undercover officers recently set up a fake chop shop/pawn shop in Georgetown and let the criminals come to them. Over 100 suspects were identified in the sting and 145 stolen cars were recovered.

Wagner started off his speech with a reminder of how auto thefts, an ongoing issue on the streets of West Seattle, are everybody’s problem even if your car doesn’t get stolen: Every stolen vehicle adds ever so slightly to the tab of insurance companies, he said, which in turn leads to higher insurance premiums for us all.

The high-tech car thieves
Wagner said most car thieves are low-tech, targeting older vehicles that do not have the sophisticated technology of modern vehicles, like transponder keys (which provide radio transmission between the vehicle and the key, so only that key can start the vehicle). This fact is evidenced by the top vehicles stolen nationwide in 2011. The top five are the 1994 Honda Accord, 1995 Honda Civic, 1991 Toyota Camry, 1997 Ford F-150 Pickup and the 2004 Dodge Caravan.

However, Wagner reported there are a growing number of high-tech car thieves who have evolved with the technology and found ways into the shiny new rigs. “If they want it; they are going to get it,” he said.

Transponder key theft
While being careful not to turn his speech into a how-to for aspiring car thieves, Wagner gave a brief rundown on some emerging trends. While transponder keys sound like a great theft deterrent – and certainly are for your basic thief – the sophisticated set has found a way in. As he described it, thieves will walk up to modern vehicles and peak into the windshield to copy down the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). Or they might pose as a potential buyer for your vehicle if you are trying to sell it and copy down the VIN in the process. “Suspects are contacting dealerships saying they are from another dealership and that their computer is down,” Wagner said. “The dealership then gives the suspects the key codes needed to steal another vehicle.” He said they can also get the codes from locksmiths if they pose as a dealer. Once they have your transponder code they program it into a digital skeleton key and that’s it; the car is long gone.

VIN cloning
He said thieves are also stealing the VIN number from a specific vehicle (his example was a white Toyota Rav4 case right here in Seattle), and then reproduce counterfeit VIN plates. Next they steal identical cars and place the counterfeit VIN in those vehicles. And all of the sudden they can sell stolen vehicles with a VIN that doesn’t come back as stolen.

In the case of the Rav4, Wagner said seven identical vehicles were stolen, given the “legit” VIN and sold across the country. Data crunchers at the main NICB office in Chicago look for duplicate VINs, and happened to find this one. Wagner tracked those sales to specific individuals who purchased the stolen vehicles and found one locally. The man had purchased the vehicle for $12,000 – a great deal considering the blue book value was around $20,000. As he broke the bad news that he needed to confiscate the man’s Rav4 as evidence, he left with a sage piece of advice: “If it’s too good to be true, don’t buy it.”

The tow truck scam
Wagner said to keep an eye out for tow trucks in your neighborhood hooking up vehicles and towing them away. While usually legitimate, the unsavory will tow it to a scrap yard and sell it for scrap with a fake bill of sale. The vehicle is stripped and crushed (totally unrecognizable) before it is reported stolen, and there is no way to recover it at that point. Wagner recommends writing down the company name and license plate number of any tow trucks towing vehicles operating in your neighborhood, just in case it turns out to be such a ruse.

Wagner also mentioned the increase in catalytic converter thefts – a problem we have endured in West Seattle. As the price for precious metals found inside the converters continue to rise, thefts will increase.

And finally, he encouraged everyone to be very cautious when buying used, even from brick and mortar dealerships. Again, if the price seems too good to be true, there is probably a reason for it.

Wagner referenced a South Seattle dealership currently under investigation for selling vehicles recovered from repo auctions and the like with serious safety problems … specifically non-functioning air bags. There are two cases of people purchasing vehicles from this dealer and getting into wrecks where the airbag did not deploy. Inside one of the air bag compartments? A diaper and fishing line keeping it sealed shut.

He encouraged everyone to check the VIN of a potential purchase at NICB’s VINCheck website. From there you can find out if the vehicle has been reported stolen or recorded as salvage.

Prevention – the layer approach
“It’s a layer approach,” Wagner said when asked how to deter criminals from stealing your vehicle. “The more things you have on your car the less chance you are getting to get your car stolen.”

He recommended having your VIN etched into every window on the vehicle (auto glass shops will do it) so it is a less attractive chop shop target, installing an alarm, a kill switch (allows you to disable the vehicle remotely) or a LoJack – a device that allows police to track your vehicle once it is stolen, hopefully before it gets chopped up for parts.

As for The Club (a steering wheel lock), Wagner did not have the most encouraging news: “A thief will tell you: if there are two Toyota Camry’s sitting in a parking lot and they want to steal one … if one has the Club they will probably take the other one … but I can pop a club off in two to three seconds.”

“The whole point is people need to get into the mindset of when you see things going on (in your neighborhood) … just write it down,” he said. “It’s a community thing, you have to work together.”

According to their website, "The National Insurance Crime Bureau is a not-for-profit organization that receives support from approximately 1,000 property/casualty insurance companies. The NICB partners with insurers and law enforcement agencies to facilitate the identification, detection and prosecution of insurance criminals."

The West Seattle Crime Prevention Council meets on the third Tuesday of each month at the Southwest Precinct (2300 S.W. Webster St.) at 7 p.m. These meetings are followed the following fourth Tuesday of each month by the West Seattle Blockwatch Captains' Network meetings at the same location, starting at 6:30 p.m.

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