Better Call Behnken: FHP seizes 11 more vehicles from Tampa dealership due to odometer fraud

Odometer

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Florida Highway Patrol has seized 11 vehicles from Tampa Preferred Motors, near Brandon. Every one of those cars had odometers that were rolled back to reflect significantly lower mileage.

The dealership owner, Soreny Marin Vargas, was arrested last week and faces 42 felony charges, accused of funneling cars through her company, then rolling back odometers and flipping the vehicles to unsuspecting buyers on Craig’s List.

FHP tells 8 On Your Side that the investigation continues. Investigators are combing through Marin Vargas’ deals and looking for potential victims.

So far, eight victims have been identified, and odometers were rolled back by as much at 150,000.

Marin Vargas’ arrest comes after an 8 On Your Side investigation shined a light on one of the “low mileage” deals. Marin Vargas faces multiple charges of uttering a forged instrument, scheme to defraud and odometer fraud.

Investigators say Marin Vargas used her dealership, Tampa Preferred Motors, to buy high mileage cars at auctions and from other dealerships. She would then, according to FHP, “solicit family members in Venezuela to provide her copies of their passports in order to use their information to title vehicles in their names.”

The dealership, investigators say, would then roll the odometers back to reflect a significantly lower mileage and then sell those cars to unsuspecting buyers on Craig’s List.

One of those buyers, Mary Ellen Morgan, turned to 8 On Your Side in February after she bought a van on Craig’s List. It was advertised as having 108,000 miles, but it actually had nearly $178,000 miles.

The van had trouble on the way home, after Morgan paid $5,000 cash to someone representing Marin Vargas. The deal was made in a Target parking lot in Brandon.

Morgan is thrilled to hear of the arrest and hopeful she’ll get her money back so she can buy a more reliable van.

“I can’t go very far with this van because it is not in the best of shape,” Morgan said, adding that she hopes this arrest will save other car buyers from going through the same trouble.

Greg Bueno, of FHP, says odometer fraud happens more than consumers think it does and that’s why car buyers have to check out deals thoroughly before they fork over money.

“You don’t want to just blindly purchase something or just believe what someone is saying to you,” Bueno said. “You want to make sure that you’re inspecting the vehicle in person, ideally, and you want to make sure that you are inspecting that title as well.”

FHP offers these tips for consumers:

  • When buying a vehicle in Florida, it is incumbent upon the buyer to check to see if the information being disclosed about the vehicle is correct.
  • The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles offers a vehicle information check online where customers can enter Title or VIN numbers for vehicles and check title information.
  • Ask to see the title.
  • Look for any primary or secondary brand(s) on the title. (For your reference, a brand is a descriptive label assigned to a vehicle that appears on that vehicle’s title, which identifies the vehicle’s current or prior condition, such as junk, salvage or flood.)
  • Look to see if any other jurisdictions have placed a brand on the title.
  • If the name of the registered owner does not match the person selling the vehicle, ask more questions about the vehicle history.
  • If there are erasure marks or if it appears the title was altered in some way, that is a red flag and customers should do more research into that vehicle.
  • The seller must complete the “Transfer of Title by Seller” section of the title when it is being sold. Make sure the odometer disclosure matches what is on the vehicle itself. Customers also want to make sure that the registered owner has signed the title.
  • Inspect the vehicle in person before purchasing.
  • Look in the driver door to see if there is a sticker indicating that repair or replacement of the odometer has occurred. This should be reflected on the title as well.
  • Customers can also purchase a private vehicle history report for more detailed information on the car.
  • A seller must disclose the correct odometer reading and brands on the title.
  • If a seller does not properly disclose, they may commit title fraud and would be subject to a criminal investigation.
  • The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles relies on the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration’s National Motor Vehicle Title and Insurance System information to properly title vehicles that cross state lines.
  • We encourage customers who feel they have been a victim of fraud to file a complaint with the department or contact local law enforcement.
  • Customers must be their own advocate when making a major investment like the purchase of a vehicle. The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles provides great resources for customers on our website. 

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