Cracking Down on Illegally Imported Vehicles

January 21, 2015 | Law & Public Safety
U.S. and British regulators are cracking down on vehicles brought to the U.S. under false pretenses.

By Michael Hill

An Austin MINI Cooper — the feds and their British counterparts call it a “Franken Car” — and destroyed it because its real origin is unknown and some of its original parts have been replaced with inferior or stolen parts before it was imported from the United Kingdom last year.

The counterfeiters’ overall goal: making this car appear vintage so it could be imported without restrictions.

Last March, federal regulators and their British counterparts launched Operation Atlantic.

“Together vehicle crime in the United Kingdom, vehicle crime in the United States. We will tackle it, we will find it, we will put people in prison. As a result of direct intervention, people have been arrested in the United Kingdom. We have prosecutions pending and together we will tackle the global scourge of international vehicle crime,” said Detective Chief Inspector Gordon Roberts of the UK Vehicle Crime Intelligence Center.

This MINI Cooper came to the U.S. last May. Customs and Border Protection suspected fraud. National Traffic and Highway Safety inspectors discovered, among other discrepancies, that it was not made in 1988. The clues?

“The VIN is for a right-hand drive vehicle, yet the vehicle in front of us is a left-hand drive. The vehicle’s engine is not built for a 1988 model and the dashboard includes an SRS (supplemental restraint system) light, for the supplementary restraint system and airbags. Another feature that would not have been found on a 1988 mini. In short, the VIN does not match the vehicle,” said Assistant Director for Trade and Cargo Security Leon Hayward.

American consumers pay up t0 $82,000-plus for older and popular Land Rover Defenders and MINI Coopers that show up at ports across the country.

NTHSA says it’s inspected 500 of those vehicles in 2013 and 2014.

“Twenty percent of those could not be legally imported and a good many of them had their VIN plates tampered with,” said NHTSA Associate Administrator Nancy Lewis. “In many cases the vehicles were actually pieced together from several vehicles. Foreign sellers were defrauding U.S consumers who thought they were purchasing a vintage car when in fact they were purchasing a potentially unsafe car.”

“I hope Atlantic goes to bigger and better things and we will put a lot of people in prison,” Roberts said.

Regulators say for now, though, Operation Atlantic has led to a big drop in vehicles fraudulently disguised for importation to the U.S.

And, they say an old adage applies: buyer beware as they urge Americans to check a foreign vehicle’s history before buying so their purchase doesn’t come to this crushing reality.