TAMPA — The FBI on Tuesday arrested more than a dozen people who it says were involved in a $25 million Tampa-based "car-cloning" con job that swindled drivers, dealers and insurers across the country for the past two decades.
The scam, which used more than 1,000 vehicles stolen from across Florida, is being called one of the biggest auto theft cases in the country.
About 50 suspects in Tampa, Miami, Chicago and Mexico have been charged, officials said. The FBI says information on stolen vehicles — from Hummers to flatbed trucks — was swapped with legally owned vehicles, allowing the thefts to go undetected.
The vehicles were usually stolen from car lots or bought from legitimate owners who then claimed their vehicles were stolen and filed fraudulent insurance claims.
The scammers then sold the vehicles for profit, defrauded insurers with payouts and possibly engaged in drug and human trafficking over the Mexican border, authorities said. Some car dealers who bought the cloned cars for less than they were worth are complicit in the scam, FBI officials said.
Suspected Tampa boss Pablo "Tito" Barrio, 54, could get up to 184 years in prison for multiple counts of fraud and theft. Five others in Tampa, including Barrio's son, were named by agents as cells in the syndicate.
The effects of the scam will continue to reverberate as authorities confiscate vehicles from scammed drivers who unknowingly bought the stolen goods.
"You could own a cloned car and wouldn't know it," said FBI Special Agent Steve Ibison. Fewer than half of the stolen vehicles have been recovered, authorities said, meaning more than 500 remain on the streets.
Giuseppe "Joe" Pirrone, 29, bought a 2005 Ford F-350 to use in his Fort Myers lawn service. But after only a year of use, authorities confiscated the truck. He continues to spend nearly $900 a month in car payments and insurance and had to end his business. Though Pirrone's credit union told him Tuesday that he would not be liable for continued payments, the dealership has refused to refund him.
"A lot of good, hard-working American citizens are being hurt by this," he said.
National Insurance Crime Bureau senior Special Agent Stan Doss said stories like Pirrone's are rare because most of the cloned cars are owned by dealers who looked the other way when offered stolen goods.
"I can't get too many BMWs for $10,000," Doss said. "They know, but they 'don't know.' "
Insurance companies were among the biggest victims.
"Insurance companies actually will pay out sometimes multiple times for the same stolen vehicle as these individuals continuously repeat and replace the counterfeit" information, said FBI Special Agent Bijan Hunter.
Authorities said they hope a National Motor Vehicle Title Information System database, started this year, could put a stop to the scheme.
Local law enforcement began noticing the problem about five years ago when high-end cars were reported stolen or missing by owners and auto lots.
"These high-value cars were just plain, flat-out disappearing," said retired Hillsborough County sheriff's Detective Jim Moffitt.
The operation's cloning effort differs from more typical auto thefts because the scammers forged titles, altered vehicle identification numbers and switched license plates to conceal the thefts. Insurance companies and vehicle owners in other states would sometimes learn of the duplication only after the cloned vehicles were wrecked.
Cadillac Escalades, Hummers and luxury cars were most heavily targeted in the beginning of the scam, Doss said. The scammers expanded their operation over the years, even adding backhoes and flatbed trucks to the scheme to meet the Central American market's demand for construction equipment.
Drew Harwell can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3386.