The stocky, brown-haired trucker arrived on Halloween to pick up a new 2010 LX 570 SUV from Lexus of Memphis. The hauler, who appeared to be in his 30s, spoke with a thick foreign accent and smoked heavily. He held a folder containing an accurate bill of lading. The Lexus was supposed to go to a leasing company in New York.
"We never saw his truck," says Stefan Smith, owner of the Memphis, Tenn., store. "He said he was parked down the street and was loading other vehicles. There are several big used-car lots and wholesale lots right around the corner. There was nothing unusual about the method of pickup."
So the sales guy handed the keys of a $76,000 vehicle to a thief.
The Memphis theft is part of a rash of crimes in which thieves use fake IDs and information posted on the Internet to pose as legitimate vehicle transporters. Industry security experts say the scam involves at least a dozen new and used vehicles stolen from dealerships and six more swiped from auto auctions. They fear the number is larger and could involve a theft ring linked to organized crime.
The industry consists of car haulers of all sizes, ranging from large national players to regional mom-and-pop operations.
The FBI confirms it is investigating a bogus hauler who stole new and used luxury vehicles from dealerships in several states. Ross Rice, an FBI spokesman in the Chicago region, declined to discuss details.
So far the thieves have used two variations of the scheme and are becoming more sophisticated.
Victims say the thieves hustle to intercept used luxury vehicles sold at auction before the real haulers arrive. Or, more recently, they stole a legitimate hauler's identity and used it to bid on jobs on a transportation Web site. The vehicles were picked up from unsuspecting dealerships and never arrived at their destinations.
These thieves use data widely available on the Internet and exploit weaknesses in the vehicle transport business, says Alan Walker, security director for the Atlanta-based auto auction company Manheim.
"Business is done with a handshake," Walker says. "This sort of theft hasn't happened before."