11/21/2007

Chicago cops bust towing scam

Police videotape thefts in progress in undercover "Operation Steal Tow"

By Angela Rozas
Chicago Tribune 

CHICAGO — The scam was brazen and fast, carried out in broad daylight.


(AP Photo/Joe Kafka)
A tow-truck driver pulled up to a car parked on the street or in a lot and hauled it away to a "chop shop" or even just to another neighborhood.

Off went tires, rims, batteries, alternators and the catalytic converter, coveted for its platinum. The most valuable parts removed, the driver shuttled what was left to a scrap yard. The car was sold by weight, netting the thieves a few hundred dollars more.

After just a few hours, the stolen car had essentially disappeared.

That's how Chicago police on Friday said 13 renegade tow-truck drivers stole cars from around the city. Authorities charged the men with the theft of 35 vehicles but believe the thieves stole thousands of cars, stripping and junking them for millions of dollars in profits.

In a seven-month undercover investigation code-named "Operation Steal Tow," police captured on videotape some of the thefts in progress.

The thieves targeted cars most owners wouldn't even bother to get back. The more the car looked like junk, the easier it was to pass off to a scrap yard, police said.

When one car didn't look bad enough, the tow-truck driver grabbed a large piece of concrete from the street and threw it onto its windshield, unaware a Chicago police officer videotaped the scene from nearby.

"Some tipoffs of a rogue tow-truck driver could be if the driver doesn't have identification on the side of the truck or just temporary stickers."

The thieves targeted all types of cars and stole them from neighborhoods across the city, from parking lots, street corners and even repair shops, said Harrison Area Sgt. Joseph Petrenko. Sometimes they stripped the car right in the street, not far from where the theft took place. Other times, they drove the stolen cars to chop shops.

"They can back up and lift [a car] and drive off in 15 seconds," said Lt. Dominic Rizzi. "Within a half an hour, you could have that car in a yard, and it could be crushed in an hour or two."

Detectives from the area's robbery, burglary and theft unit worked with investigators from the Cook County state's attorney's office to catch the rogue tow-truck drivers in the act, videotaping about two dozen drivers on numerous occasions as they allegedly swiped and stripped cars, sometimes with crude tools.

In one video, the driver is seen punching a hole in the gas tank of the car, draining gasoline into the street as it is driven to a scrap lot, where full tanks aren't allowed.

One man was videotaped under a car struggling to remove a part. He finally resorted to using a long pole to knock the part loose. Another man could be seen using a hammer and chisel to pry open a trunk before dumping its contents.

When another man's tow truck broke down, he could be seen loading wheels and rims from an allegedly stolen car onto a dolly, then pushing the parts to a shop.

Police estimate the thieves each took as many as five or six cars a day, from a 1993 Lincoln Continental to a 2001 Lexus. One thief allegedly told police he stole 300 cars in one year.

Many of the cars were never reported stolen, their owners believing the vehicles had been impounded by the city. They often didn't try to recover them, figuring the cost of retrieving them exceeded their value.

The drivers worked independently in tow trucks without professional licenses, some claiming to be owners of fictitious towing companies. Many drove trucks with no required identification on the sides of them.

The scrap shops that bought the stripped cars worked with police and were never targets of the investigation, said Interim Police Supt. Dana Starks.

The thieves were aided by a loophole in state law that allows used-car dealers to sell vehicles for scrap without showing a title. The dealer is then supposed to report the sale to the state. But police believe the accused used fake dealer licenses to sell the cars to scrap yards and never reported the sales to the state.

Ronald Kelly, chief investigator for the state's attorney's office, said prosecutors are working with the General Assembly to try to close the loophole. That might mean requiring all cars sold for scrap to have titles with them or requiring the scrap companies as well as the dealers to report the sales to the state.

Rizzi said he wants to start a training session for patrol officers to teach them how to recognize rogue tow-truck drivers. Some tipoffs might be if the driver doesn't have identification on the side of the truck or just temporary stickers. Most authentic tow-truck companies also carry safety equipment such as fire extinguishers, sand buckets and hazard cones.

Police said more charges are likely to come.

"That's just a small sampling," said Rizzi of the 13 charged so far. "We believe there is a problem citywide with these rogue drivers."

Copyright 2007 Chicago Tribune Company

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