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How thieves can use tow truck companies to steal your car

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RICHMOND, Va. (WTVR) - There is an increasing trend of criminals using tow truck companies to help steal cars, according to Richmond Police. The crooks use unsuspecting tow truck companies that advertise they buy junk cars for cash. 

The criminal poses as the owner of your car, then sells your vehcile to the tow company without ever handing over a title or the keys.

“When it happened to me it was so bizarre and far-fetched," said theft victim Takisha Smith. "I mean, the guy stood behind my house and said it was his car and he was on a bicycle.”

Smith said the criminal stole her van when it was parked behind her Southside home. She said she saw the tow truck hauling her van away.

“Why didn’t the tow truck driver question the guy? Ask why don’t you have the keys to this car?," she asked after the fact. "That should have been a red flag to say do you really own this car."

Richmond Police said they’ve investigated dozens of crimes like this since January. Investigators said the crimes are happening in Southside, East Richmond and Church Hill.

If the tow companies get the vehicles, what is in it for the criminals?

The criminals carrying out this crime get a quick $200 or $300 on the spot. The tow company that buys the car from the "owner" gets money back by selling the vehicle to a recycling center.

By the time victims like Smith realize their car is gone, their vehicle could already have been destroyed at the junk yard.

“I mean, you see those ads all the time ones like 1-800 junk your car but you just wouldn’t think someone would do something like that,” she said.

Joseph Marlowe, owner of Mr. Tow in North Richmond, said he call tell right away when a potential seller is pulling a fast one.

"Some of our calls are shady and we know they're shady," Marlowe said. "They don't have the title, registration doesn't match them because their aunt or uncle died and left it to them, or they say I used to live here and got evicted and my landlord wants me to get the car out of here.  We hear all kinds of stories."

Marlowe questioned how people can post ads that offer to buy a car from someone who doesn’t have a title or keys to the vehicle. He said it's an open invitation for criminals to rip someone off.

CBS 6 took that question to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

“There are all types of regulations in place that these companies are supposed to abide by," said DMV spokeswoman Sunni Brown. "A photo copy or an electric copy of the title, or something like that. The sales receipt or they should have something proving they are the owners of these cars. To be able to take a car away without having to show a title with all the rules and regulations in place, that shouldn't be happening.”

Brown said the DMV is putting the tow truck companies on notice.

“We have a salvage unit with three special agents dedicated to investigating exactly these types of crimes and we plan to reallocate resources to that special task force," she said. "One of the great things these special agents will be able to do is random audits and spot checks of these types of businesses to make sure they are following the rules and regulations.”

Marlowe said he would welcome the extra law enforcement because he said too many tow companies do not report the cars they buy to the required national vehicle registry -- NAVITIS.

On top of that, Marlowe said many tow companies don’t adhere to the mandatory 30 day waiting period before taking a car to be recycled.

Smith said that waiting period helped her reclaim her vehicle. She found the tow company that took her van and, because the owner didn’t recycle it immediately, she was able to get it back.

"The manager of the tow company did not want anything to do with it. I mean he actually said he would fire the driver because it was on the driver to verify everything" Smith said.

Some local recyclers, like River City Recycling, said they too were aware of the trend. That is why they have safeguards to make sure stolen cars do not end up crushed on their lot.

“We have a paperwork process, an inspection process to make sure we're buying a product that we can recycle,"Marty Williams, with River City Recycling, said. "But more importantly we are clearing up the DMV title to make sure we're not dealing with a stolen vehicle."

Richmond Police said most brand new cars are never towed in this manner. They said other than that - there is no rhyme or reason as to which vehicles are targeted. Stolen vehicles are large, small, old, broken down and even parked in your driveway.