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After overhearing random snippets of a deal, Jeffrey Martinez noticed something that stopped him cold: It was too easy.
A quick Google search of the name given by the customer revealed that his instincts were correct, he said — someone else was sitting in his dealership using that person’s identity and Connecticut driver’s license to buy a Lexus.
“He wants to finance 100 percent of it, and his credit is in the 800s, which is fabulous,” Martinez, general sales manager at Lexus of Mount Kisco, in southern New York, told Automotive News. “The guys quoted him a rate of 4.9, and he didn’t flinch — and that was when the rates were like at 2.9.”
Martinez’s skepticism may have helped prevent the store from being victimized that day by what prosecutors say was an identity-theft and car-trafficking ring with expensive taste that managed to fool at least five other dealerships in the outskirts of metropolitan New York City. Fraud is a long-running sore point among dealers nationwide, and a look at an ongoing federal case reveals some subtle clues that could help dealers ascertain what’s real and which would-be customers might be too good to be true.
On Jan. 18, Jankely Hidalgo, 29, dropped off Jonathan Sevilla, 34, at Lexus of Mount Kisco, about an hour’s drive from the Bronx, where both men lived.
Authorities say Sevilla attempted to finance a 2018 Lexus LX 570 using the identity of an individual who Martinez said held a “big position” at a local hospital.
When Martinez began asking Sevilla specific questions about the hospital, he was met with generic one- and two-word answers.
“There’s something not right there because you should be able to qualify for a lower rate, and if you work that hard and you are who you say you are … you would know better,” Martinez said.
Sevilla’s demeanor was eerily calm, Martinez said, and he sat in the service lobby for hours waiting for the SUV, despite being told that he could return later.
“He was so calm, so cool, so collected,” he said, “and that’s what drove me home.”
Martinez reported his suspicions to the store’s owners and then did what he thought was in the dealership’s best interest.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time,” Martinez said. “I didn’t want to make it a scene because how do I know that he doesn’t have a gun or a knife?”
As the process dragged on and the printer mysteriously stopped working, Sevilla grew antsy and started pacing.
Martinez wasn’t sure whether calling the police at that moment was the best course of action.
“Was I going to get John Cena, or was I going to get the guy from the movie Police Academy?” he said. “I was afraid that I would be putting the dealership at risk.”
After Sevilla eventually left on his own, Martinez called the police immediately.
“He walked outside, picked up his phone, and the next thing you know, he started walking across the street,” Martinez said, “then he walked toward the grass and over the fence.”
Walker: Third arrest in case
When committing identity theft, generally, one or two people will enter the dealership after being dropped off, by either another person involved in the scheme or a Lyft or Uber driver, Stefanie DeNise, the Westchester County assistant district attorney who is prosecuting the case against Sevilla and Hidalgo, told Automotive News.
“They usually know the exact car that they want. Sometimes they do their homework, meaning they’ve actually Googled where the car they want is located,” DeNise said, “and that’s why sometimes they’re driving kind of far distances to go to a specific dealership because they know that car is there.”
In June, Hidalgo and Sevilla were arrested on charges that they fraudulently purchased five high-priced vehicles from dealerships about 40 to 50 miles north of New York City.
From October 2017 through February, the ring “started getting higher-end vehicles, and then I think we sort of saw that they were just doing any vehicle they could get their hands on,” DeNise said.
The federal investigation extends to four states — Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey — in conjunction with a host of local police departments and the Department of Homeland Security. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement also had a limited role in the case, according to a spokeswoman with the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office.
There have been five reported incidents of fraudulent transactions so far, at these New York dealerships: Ray Catena Lexus of Larchmont, Land Rover of New Rochelle, Mariano Rivera Toyota of Mount Kisco, Croton Auto Park in Croton-On-Hudson and Mercedes-Benz of Goldens Bridge.
The ring likely was responsible for more than $1 million worth of theft, according to DeNise.
In all the cases implicating the fraud ring, the suspects are accused of using a stolen identity — different at each dealership — and putting zero money down, according to the investigators.
“They will use the identities of individuals with good credit, and that could extend basically to any occupation,” said Steven Vandervelden, deputy district attorney for Westchester County. “We have seen the stolen identity of FBI agents; we’ve seen the stolen identity of doctors. You name it.”
DeNise said investigators found that identity thieves primarily access the dark web to purchase complete identities using cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin.
She urges dealerships to be aware of out-of-state customers who get dropped off and try to rush deals.
On the phone, in a hurry
When she meets with salespeople at dealerships that realize fraud was committed, they all tell her two things, DeNise said.
One is that the person was on his or her phone almost the entire time — either texting or walking away from the desk and talking to someone. Second, the suspects wanted to drive the vehicle off the lot the same day.
“The salesman who made the sale obviously will meet with the customer and show them, ‘Here’s how your Bluetooth works; let me link your phone to Bluetooth,’ and the criminal will always say, ‘No, no, no, I’m in a rush, man. I’ve just got to get out of here,’ because obviously they don’t want their cellphone now being paired to this vehicle,” DeNise said. “They don’t sometimes even want it to be clean.”
A search warrant of Hidalgo’s home unearthed smartphones and a slew of electronic devices, some storing identifying information, and a credit card reader used to fabricate credit cards, according to the District Attorney’s Office. In Sevilla’s home, detectives found more than a dozen cellphones, SIM phone cards and memory cards, the office said.
“Much of identity theft is being done over the telephone in today’s day and age,” Vandervelden said. “These kids are born with these cellular telephones practically in their hands — they’re very adept at using them.
“Once we get our hands on one of those devices, it’s typically a treasure trove of evidence,” he said.
In this particular ring, DeNise estimates, around seven people were involved. Authorities continue to search for other suspects. The suspects used WhatsApp, text messages and phone calls to communicate, according to the electronics acquired from the two homes.
“Every ring and operation operates differently, and sometimes the rings are separated, but as you move higher up, you learn … well, this person controls these three groups of guys,” DeNise said. “That’s the guy who orders the car, and then three separate groups of people.”
Investigators learned that the vehicles were being shipped to Africa. A “mule” such as Sevilla would earn about $1,000 in cash for going into the dealership and fraudulently purchasing the car, DeNise said.
Jankely Hidalgo and Jonathan Sevilla, below, were arrested on charges that they fraudulently purchased five vehicles.
In July, a third arrest was made in connection with the rash of thefts. Shamakia Walker, 30, turned herself in to Mount Kisco police, according to a statement from Westchester County District Attorney Anthony Scarpino.
Walker was charged with second-degree grand larceny and first-degree identity theft on suspicion of using stolen information to receive an auto loan at Mariano Rivera Toyota of Mount Kisco, which is owned by the former New York Yankees pitcher.
Liam Tully, the dealership’s general sales manager, told Automotive News that he was not at the store at the time of the incident but said his sales staff told him that Walker had called beforehand and knew what vehicle she wanted.
She knew “how to fill out the credit application where it didn’t raise any red flags,” Tully said. “I don’t know how she gained all that information.”
Walker even test drove the vehicle and was “very calm” throughout the process, he said.
After a package from Mariano Rivera Toyota arrived at what the store thought was the purchaser’s home the next day, Tully said, that person called inquiring about the vehicle purchase, saying she had no knowledge of it.
Since the incident, the store has installed a driver’s license scanner to weed out any potential fraudsters.
Lexus of Mount Kisco’s Martinez said salespeople sometimes might feel inclined to turn a blind eye to this sort of behavior because, from their perspective, “That’s what insurance is for.”
“We’re a dealership that doesn’t do things as fast as lot of other dealerships, although we do move swiftly, but we don’t necessarily rush every process, and there is a process for everything we do,” he said. “There is a point where you have to cross your T’s and dot your I’s just to confirm that everything is what it looks like it’s supposed to be.”