Thursday, May 17
BRATTLEBORO -- When Jay Tedesco and Brian Goodridge bought used trucks from a Brattleboro dealer earlier this year, they became the proud new owners of a pair of stolen vehicles.

Tedesco and Goodridge were just the latest victims of a scheme called "car cloning" -- in which criminals replace a stolen automobile's vehicle identification number with a legitimate VIN from a similar vehicle.

Because the forged VIN does not mark the vehicle as stolen, thieves can then re-sell them to legitimate buyers.

Tedesco and Goodridge both purchased their vehicles from Mark's Motors on Putney Road. When they registered the trucks in their home states -- Tedesco is from New York and Goodridge is from New Hampshire -- authorities contacted them, informed them the trucks were stolen, and seized them.

"I'd never heard of cloning before except for sheep," Goodridge said. "I just basically lost my shirt."

Mark Lanoue, who owns Mark's Motors, says he sympathizes with Tedesco and Goodridge but does not feel responsible for their loss. He bought the trucks from two separate Vermont dealerships which, in turn, bought the cars from yet another dealership.

Lanoue believes that the state of Vermont is ultimately at fault because its Department of Motor Vehicles granted the cars legitimate titles.

"I'm a victim of the state of Vermont processing stolen vehicles," he said. "We are all victims here, right down the line."

The situation is currently under investigation by several law enforcement agencies, and it remains far from clear who will ultimately pay the bill. The trucks initially came through Canada and went through at least five dealerships and individuals before they reached Tedesco and Goodridge.

"It's not rare to see people duped by clones at every step in the process," said Frank Scafidi, spokesman for the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which investigates insurance fraud and stolen vehicles. "Everybody has a legitimate gripe about how this occurred, but where does the buck stop?"

According to Scafidi, the NICB has been tracking clones since 2001 and has identified 1,432 stolen cars with false VINs. Because clones are so difficult to detect, he believes that number represents just a small fraction of the cloned cars circulating in the marketplace.

"Seldom do you have a criminal act that is lucrative in its early stages that is the monopoly of the few," he said.

Tedesco still owes $23,000 for the 2003 Hummer H2 he no longer owns. He said he cannot afford another vehicle, nor can he afford a lawyer to sue Lanoue, who he believes is ultimately responsible.

"He's the dealership. He should know the vehicles he's buying, and he should do research on the vehicles he's buying," Tedesco said.

Goodridge says he is down $30,000 for the 2005 Ford F250 that was seized from him. He also lost $3,400 in improvements to the vehicle. Though he says he is friends with Lanoue, he has no other option but to sue the dealer.

"I'm in the process of suing Mark. He's my friend, but what am I going to do? Lie down for this? I'm still making payments on a truck I don't own, and I didn't do anything wrong," Goodridge said. "Everyone else is just going to sue up the chain."

In addition to blaming the Vermont DMV, Lanoue holds Hayes Ford of Newport responsible -- at least in part --and believes that dealership should cut a check, so that the money can work its way down to Tedesco and Goodridge.

Hayes Ford took both trucks on trade from Mark LeMay of Troy. The dealership then passed the Ford to St. J Auto of St. Johnsbury, and the Hummer to Lowery's Auto Sales of South Barre. Those dealers, in turn, sold the trucks to Lanoue.

Ron Canton, general manager of Hayes Ford, said he did everything in his power to ensure that the trucks were legitimate. Both trucks came with valid Vermont titles, he said, and came up clean when he ran Carfax searches on them.

"If I can't trust the state of Vermont to produce a title on a vehicle without it being cloned and stolen, who can I trust? Every dealer in the state needs to be told that the state of Vermont cannot be trusted," he said.

Like Lanoue, Canton said he understands the plight of the consumers who eventually wound up with the trucks, but does not feel that reimbursing them or the other dealerships is appropriate.

"I feel bad for them. I wish there was something I could do. But I think writing a check is an admission of guilt, and nobody did anything wrong except the state of Vermont issuing titles on those vehicles," he said.

Mike Ruse, a DMV detective who is investigating the case, said that Canton and the other dealers may have a point.

"They're right. The cars had a legitimate title. But it's garbage in, garbage out," he said.

Ruse said that because the DMV relies on information provided by the dealerships when granting titles, the department has to trust that applicants are providing accurate information. The DMV lacks the manpower to inspect every car licensed in the state.

"The way I would feel is that car dealers are car experts. We're going by information they supply to us. They have the car in front of them," he said.

Lt. Mary McIntyre, who runs the DMV's investigations unit for southern Vermont, also believes it is the dealers' responsibility.

"When you go to have your hair cut and dyed by a beautician, you expect that beautician is familiar with the product they are using. Therefore, customers buying a car would have a particular expectation that a car dealer knows the vehicle they're selling," she said.

In addition to the "public VIN," which is usually displayed on the dashboard, most vehicles have VINs hidden in several other places. When thieves clone cars, they often change only the public VIN and those that are easily accessible. If a dealer checked the hidden VINs and found that one or more was different from the public VIN, it would be an immediate tip-off.

"They're the ones holding onto the product," McIntyre said of the dealers. "They've got all the clues. They've got all the evidence. The DMV has nothing. They're holding everything."

Ruse said he cannot comment on the investigation while it is ongoing, but he said the trail has brought him north of the border.

LeMay, who sold both trucks to Hayes Ford, bought them in Canada at different times from different sources. He said the Hummer came from an outfit called Red Line Trucks, and the Ford came from a man named Mike Boulet.

"They didn't seem suspicious at all. They're not guys that I knew," he said.

LeMay said he does not know the location or telephone numbers of either Boulet or Red Line. He said he ran Carfax checks on both vehicles and had the Vermont DMV verify their status.

Vermont Assistant Attorney General David Borskywsky said his department has not received an abundance of complaints about cloned cars, but that problems do exist. One way to cut down on cloning would be to link each state DMV and share VIN information, he said. That way, multiple cars could not be titled and registered with the same VIN.

The best way to cut down on this sort of crime, however, is to be careful when purchasing used cars, he said.

"One warning to every consumer is to do a thorough check, whether it be a Carfax or another service that checks VINs," he said.

Paul Heintz can be reached at pheintz@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.