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Commercial Auto Theft Section

Commercial Auto Theft Section (CATS) is oversaw by by Lt. Silva Atwater

Commercial Auto Theft Section (CATS) of Commercial Crimes Division is comprised of two separate units; Commercial Auto Theft Section and the Cargo Hijack Unit (CHU).   CATS and CHU provide logistical and technical support to the geographic areas regarding the theft of motorized vehicles.  Additionally, the Commercial Auto Theft Section partners with local and national law enforcement agencies and various professional organizations.

Commercial Auto Theft Section (CATS)
CATS investigators conducts auto theft investigations which involve organized theft groups, chop shops, receivers of stolen vehicles and components parts. CATS further conduct complex theft investigations on a citywide basis.

Cargo Hijack Unit (CHU)
Cargo Hijack assumes investigative responsibility of specific cargo theft investigations on a citywide basis.  Cargo Hijack investigates the theft and or hijack of commercial vehicles where the object is cargo.  Often these thefts involve “Hijack/Kidnap” of commercial vehicles by force or fear, or by forcing the drivers to transport the property against their will.

The following are examples of the types of thefts investigated by CATS.

Chop Shops

The term “Chop Shop” refers to the illegal dismantling of stolen vehicles.  The parts or components are then sold or otherwise dispose of.  Chop Shops are not always conducted a business.  They occur at residences, alleys, lots anywhere; they can occur anywhere.  Its not the location it’s the activity.

Title washing

Title washing involves changing the reported DMV status of a vehicle.  Crooks will laundry the title removing legal owners and changing the recorded registered status.  Changing the status of from Salvage or Junk allows the crooks sell the vehicle for a higher price.

VIN switching

VIN switching involves switching the VIN of a stolen vehicle with the VIN of a donor vehicle.   Switching the VIN will hides the true identity and legal status of the vehicle.
VIN cloning

VIN cloning involves the stealing the identity of another vehicle and using the new identity to conceal the legal status or true condition.

Subleasing of Vehicles

Subleasing involves the illegal subleasing a lease or purchased vehicle to a third party with the permission or consent of the legal owner.

Internet purchases and sales of vehicles on the internet

Purchasing or selling vehicles on the internet is extremely risky.  Sellers can sell a vehicle and not the vehicle.  Buyers can find themselves paying for a vehicle which they never receive.  Both are at risk of receiving counterfeit currency, checks and other documents.  Additionally both can fall prey numerous internet shams.  Crooks bank on the internet to hide their true identity and distance to hinder legal investigations.  Remember the following points when buying or selling a vehicle.

Chop Shops

Due to the cost of a new vehicles and the rising expense of auto repair there is a “black market” for stolen parts.  Organized and professional auto theft suspects make enormous profits dismantling stolen vehicles and selling the parts to unscrupulous auto repair shops.  In many instances, these auto shops will place orders for specific auto parts.  The auto shop will then install the stolen parts and components and then fraudulently bill the client.  Often times the customer is charged for the cost of an Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) part and thus increasing profits.

In some cases, auto repair shop owners will contract with auto theft suspects to dismantle stolen vehicles.  The vehicles will be stripped at another location which further insulates shop owners.  The suspect’s will then deliver specific parts ordered by unscrupulous shop owners.  The suspect’s will then store remaining desirable parts and components and then discard of the unwanted parts.

Often times, “Chop Shops” operate in residential areas in an attempt to avoid detection.  In many cases suspect’s “cut” or dismantle stolen vehicles at apartment buildings, abandoned homes, alleys and on public streets.

Community members should be observant of vehicles delivered and disassembled in their neighborhood.  The vehicles will be transported from the location under the cover of darkness or during periods when neighbors are not home.

Title Washing

Before purchasing a used vehicle a buyer should ask the seller for valid photo identification and ensure information corresponds to the vehicle registration.  Buyers should remember when the price of a vehicle for sale is too good to be true it probably is.  As a consumer, there are several organizations which produce a variety of public awareness materials in English and Spanish which addresses “title washing” and vehicle theft.  Buyers should make reference to these materials when purchasing a vehicle from strangers.  Below is an example of “title washing:”

Mike was looking in a local auto buyer magazine and saw an ad for a 2006 Lexus for $15,000.  The seller indicated in the advertisement he "must sell" the vehicle.  Mike telephoned the number and left a message expressing interest in the vehicle.  Eventually a male calling himself Wayne contacted him and said he was selling the Lexus because he had lost his job and needed the money.  Both parties agreed to meet the following day so Mike could inspect the vehicle.

The following day, Mike met Wayne on a public street and after inspecting the Lexus agreed to pay $11,000 for the Lexus.  Mike noted the vehicle’s title was “clear” which means the registration did not indicate any previous record the vehicle had been "salvaged" or deemed as "junk."

Several months after purchasing the vehicle Mike took the Lexus to his local repair shop for servicing.  The mechanic told Mike his Lexus appeared to have been in a major traffic collision and repairs had been made with parts from parts assorted vehicles.  It also appeared the repairs were not made by a reputable service center.

Mike contacted the local police and learned his Lexus had been registered out of state and had been in a major traffic collision.  As it turned out, the vehicle had been “junked” and the insurance company had paid the original owner of the vehicle.  In addition, Mike learned his Lexus had been transported to California and repaired using substandard parts and shoddy workmanship.  The seller of the vehicle registered the Lexus and the “salvage” disclaimer on the registration was intentionally removed (washed) from the title.  By removing "salvage" from the registration and title the true value of the Lexus was hidden.

Vehicle Identification Number (VIN Switching)

Walter was looking for a good work truck and observed a 2004 Chevrolet Silverado for sale parked on the street.  The Silverado appeared to be in excellent condition so he decided to call the person whose telephone number was listed on the for sale sign.  Walter left a message and moments later a person who identified himself as William called him back.  Both of them agreed to meet but upon arriving at the location the vehicle was parked unattended.  After ten minutes a male approached and identified himself as William and allowed Walter to inspect the vehicle.  William told Walter that he was selling the Silverado because he had recently lost his job and needed the money.  William said he was selling the Silverado for $9,700.00 cash and provided Walter with the title to the Silverado as proof of ownership.  Walter agreed to the price and he purchased the vehicle.

Several months later Walter was stopped for a traffic violation.  At this time he was told by the officer the truck he had purchased had a VIN belonged to another vehicle.  Because of this, the truck was impounded and he attempted to contact William whose telephone number was now disconnected.  The officer then impounded Walter’s Silverado.  Of course, Walter was unable to contact William because the telephone number had been disconnected and the address listed on the title was erroneous.

Walter later spoke to an auto theft detective who informed him his 2004 Silverado was in fact a VIN-switched stolen 2006 Silverado.  Although investigators later arrested William, Walter was never able to recoup the $9,700.00 he paid for the vehicle.

Anyone considering purchasing a used vehicle should ask the seller for valid photo identification and ensure that the name and addresses on the identification and vehicle registration match. 
There are several organizations which produce a variety of public awareness materials in English and Spanish which address vehicle theft issues.

VIN Cloning

Yvette wanted to purchase a used car and located a 2007 Nissan Titan in a reputable internet website.  The vehicle was listed as being well below blue book value so she contacted the seller.  The person identified himself as Mike and both parties negotiated and then agreed upon a price.  He then stated he would take the vehicle to her residence for her to inspect and complete the transaction.  Yvette then discovered the vehicle was parked in front of her apartment building.  She then waited by the vehicle when she was approached by a male who identified himself as Mike.  After a test drive a review of the registration and title everything seemed to be in order.  The deal was consummated and Yvette paid Mike $14,800.00 cash for the vehicle.

The following day, Yvette drove the Nissan to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to register it and was told that the vehicle would have to be inspected by the California Highway Patrol (CHP).  Upon inspection, an investigator informed Yvette that the vehicle was cloned from a 2007 Nissan Titan which was previously registered in another state.  The vehicle she had purchased was actually stolen.

The suspect created counterfeit Title, VIN plate and other vehicle identification numbers corresponding to the identity of the out of state vehicle.  Using this documentation, he was able to register the stolen vehicle and provide Yvette with proper documentation

Subleasing of Vehicles

Subleasing is where the customer enters into an agreement with a third party to take over the vehicle payments.  Only the financial institutions can modify the terms of the contract they enter into with the purchaser or leaser of a vehicle.  The problem arises when the person subleasing the vehicle fails to make payments or fails to return the vehicle at the end of the sublease.  The person who originally leased the vehicle is still responsible making payments, ensuring the return of the vehicle or the pay off of the contracted amount.

Buying or selling a vehicle over the internet

Buying a vehicle

a.    Ask for and view the seller’s identification.
b.    Record the identification number.
c.    Verify the person who selling the vehicle is the owner.
d.    Ask for and verify the vehicle Certificate of Ownership.
e.    Check the VIN thru internet resources.
f.    Be careful of a deal which is too good to be true.
g.    Educate yourself before you buy a vehicle.

Selling your vehicle

a.    Ask for and view the buyer’s personal identification.
b.    Record the identification number.
c.    Verify the currency, personal check, or cashier check before turning over the vehicle’s “Certificate of Ownership.”
d.    Complete the “Release of Liability” form, make a copy and mail the original.
e.    Remember if at a later time you determined the vehicle you purchased was stolen you may not be able to recoup your money.
f.    Educate yourself before you sell your vehicle.

Methods for the public to report a crime or suspicious activity.

  • TEXT-A-TIP Spanish
  • NICB National Information Crime Bureau (NICB) provides reports of auto theft trends. Handouts: Auto Theft, Identity Theft, VIN Cloning, (public VIN checks and educ. resource)

Educational information for the public.